LONDON - Hundreds of thousands of people formed the largest anti-war protest in Britain's history yesterday, sending a strong message to Prime Minister Tony Blair not to follow the United States into a war with Iraq, while millions of other protesters marched in cities around the world, including in other capitals of America's historical allies.
The globally coordinated protests, which included rallies in dozens of U.S. cities, were made up of widely divergent groups of people who shared a common message: Their march for peace is far preferable to any march toward war.
Protesters were almost entirely peaceful. The size of the crowds surprised police in many cities, though perhaps the numbers could have been expected. Largely lost in the political disagreements between governments about how to best handle Iraq is the fact that public opinion worldwide - including in countries that are backing the tough stance taken by the United States - is overwhelmingly against a war.
The London protesters said they were optimistic that their numbers could help convince Blair that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein can be disarmed by peaceful means. Police said at least 750,000 people marched in near-freezing temperatures made more bitter by unforgiving winds. Organizers put the number closer to 2 million.
"We think the people of Britain have shown what they think about this war," said organizer Andrew Burgin. "I don't know how the prime minister could ignore this kind of response."
Blair has intensified his public relations campaign over the past two weeks to sell his country on war, with no signs of success. The most recent polls show only 9 percent approve of an attack on Iraq without a second United Nations resolution, and Blair's approval ratings have tumbled steadily since he aligned himself with President Bush.
Speaking in Glasgow to his Labor Party, which is split over Iraq, Blair said arms inspectors would get more time. But, less than a week after he ordered tanks and soldiers to protect London's Heathrow Airport from a possible terrorist attack, he added that he remains committed to using war to disarm Iraq if necessary, regardless of public sentiment and his political fortunes.
"I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor," Blair said as about 25,000 protesters gathered outside the building, "but sometimes it is the price of leadership and it is the cost of conviction. As you watch the pictures of the march on your television screen, if there are 500,000 people that is still less than the number of deaths that Saddam Hussein is responsible for."
London was all but impassable as protesters flooded in on buses and trains, filling the streets and spilling onto sidewalks while blowing whistles and horns, banging drums, chanting anti-war slogans and waving banners. People leaned from windows above them, displaying signs: "Make tea, not war," read one depicting Blair with a tea kettle on his head and a rifle in his hand. "Bush wanted for crimes against the planet," said another that included a picture of Bush in a prison outfit, a dunce cap atop his head. Another said simply, "No war."
The tenor bordered on festive through much of the march, even as the messages were often harsh. One protester wore a large papier-mache head depicting Bush eating an Iraqi baby. A man dressed as death stood with a cardboard missile - painted as an American flag - embedded in his head as he shot fake blood at passers-by.
The protesters included mothers pushing bundled babies in strollers, teens with faces glittering with piercings, Muslim men and women dressed in traditional clothing, and gray-haired veterans of peace marches of decades past. They followed a 3 1/2 -mile route, past Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street, Blair's home.
"I hope he takes us as seriously as we take the prospect of war," said Jean Scarborough, 67, who had traveled about 100 miles from her home in Melton Mowbray and relied on a wooden cane as she moved toward the Piccadilly Circus portion of the march. "Saddam is evil, but so is war. Evil is evil whatever its form."
The march ended at Hyde Park, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a raucous crowd in chants of "Give peace a chance" and "Keep hope alive," and telling the protesters not to look too harshly on the United States, that "America is better than its leadership."
Explaining why he was in London rather than at protests in Washington or New York, Jackson underscored the importance the Bush administration sees in keeping Britain as an ally. Standing with actor Tim Robbins, Jackson told the crowd that "as Britain goes, so our hopes for peace go."
"It is not too late to stop this war," he said. "We must march until there's a resolution of peace and reconciliation."
So many people filled the streets that police ordered the march to begin early to ease congestion. Andy Trotter, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department, said the crowd was "at least" 750,000 people but was difficult to estimate because the main route was so clogged that thousands of protesters took to side streets.
"It's by far the largest protest we've ever had," he said, adding that it likely doubled the country's previous record turnout last year when country dwellers held a march against proposals to outlaw fox hunting. "I must say, though, it has been remarkably free of trouble."
Protests were held in dozens of U.S. cities, the biggest coming in New York. Police gave no estimate on crowd size, but streets overflowed with demonstrators and organizers said 400,000 people showed despite bitter cold and a court order prohibiting a march. Instead, most of the protesters were penned into the area of First Avenue between 49th Street and 72nd Street.
Speakers included Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, actors Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, and Harry Belafonte.
Anti-war rallies were held in about 150 other U.S. cities. "We need to leave Iraq alone," Detroit rally organizer Kris Hamel of the Michigan Emergency Committee Against the War on Iraq told the Associated Press.
Thousands marched to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, included silent Quakers, Koreans banging drums and students chanting peace slogans.
"Can you justify blood for oil?" read a sign held by Marianna Daniels, 14, in Madison, Wis.
It's not just the usual protesters, said Arthur Buonomia: "Middle America is getting off their sofas and their big screen TVs and are trying to bring about the changes that are good to end this war."
In Rome, the scene was much the same, with more protesters than expected arriving to show their disagreement with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's support for Bush. Police estimated the crowd at 1 million; organizers claimed at least triple that.
In France, where President Jacques Chirac has angered Bush with an adamant stand that armed inspectors be given more time, police estimated that 100,000 demonstrators marched past the French Senate to the Place de la Bastille.
Marches took place in many other French cities, including the country's second-largest, Lyon, where 10,000 people took to the streets in peaceful protest, and in Marseille, where similar numbers turned out.
Police in Berlin said about 500,000 protesters gathered at the Brandenburg Gate, where Germans celebrated the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and where, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Germans gathered in support of the United States.
Police estimated that 60,000 turned out in Oslo, Norway, the Associated Press reported; that 50,000 assembled in bitter cold in Brussels, Belgium; and that 35,000 gathered peacefully in Stockholm, Sweden.
About 80,000 marched in Dublin, Irish police said. Crowds were estimated at 60,000 in Seville, Spain; 40,000 in Bern, Switzerland; 30,000 in Glasgow, Scotland; 25,000 in Copenhagen, Denmark; 15,000 in Vienna, Austria; 5,000 in Cape Town and 4,000 in Johannesburg in South Africa; 5,000 in Tokyo; and 2,000 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
And in Baghdad, tens of thousands of Iraqis, many carrying assault rifles, demonstrated to support Saddam Hussein and denounce the United States.
In Syria, 200,000 chanted anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli slogans.
The only protest with substantial disruptions was in Athens, Greece, where police clashed with anarchists.