Iraq: 15 February – One day that shook the world

The magnificent demonstrations on 15 February brought millions onto the streets in well over 600 cities in every country and continent imaginable. In the future this will be seen as a line, which separated two historical periods of time. The first was marked by the euphoric triumphalism of capitalism and imperialism during the 1990’s. The second is the heightened conflicts and crisis of world capitalism, which has provoked an unprecedented international movement of millions not prepared to accept the colonial war being initiated by US imperialism and its allies. The anti-capitalist movement, which developed during the 1990s, began a new phase in the emerging opposition to capitalist globalisation and neo-liberal policies. The mass protests on 15 February took the movement to a qualitatively higher level.

15 February. CWI commentary and analysis.

Stop the war in Iraq

It is impossible to arrive at a definitive figure but estimates of up to 30 million protestors worldwide have been published in capitalist daily papers such as the British Guardian. Blair’s Britain has been shaken by the march of up to two million in London. This was the largest popular demonstration ever to have taken place in Britain. As significant were the mass protests in the USA. Up to 400,000 marched in New York – with demonstrators made all the more determined by the decision of the local courts to ban a march. 250,000 took to the streets in San Francisco. The mass protests took place in the big cities. To these must be added the protests and rallies called in small towns and villages.

Significantly the biggest protests took place in those countries, such as the USA, Britain, Australia, Spain and Italy where the government is supporting a war on Iraq. Like Britain, Australia also experienced its largest ever protest when more than 500,000 took to the streets in Sydney and up to 200,000 in Melbourne. Italy experienced the largest single demonstration in one city where in a tremendous protest up to 3 million in Rome showed their opposition to the pro-war policy of Berlusconi. In Spain, Aznar felt the hot breath of the Spanish masses. Two demonstrations of more than 1 million took place. Between 1 and 2 million marched in Madrid and a staggering 1.3 million took to the streets of Barcelona. El País reported than one in every fifteen Spaniards participated on demonstrations. In Zaragoza, with a population of 800,000, 600,000 took to the streets! In Barcelona, primary schools organised lessons about the threat of war and made anti-war placards in their classes. The famous painting by Picasso, Guernica, was also used to depict the horrors of war.

The anti-war mood has even begun to affect the working class youth in the US and British army who are being sent to fight this war for oil. In Australia, in the port of Fremantle, Socialist Party campaigners have been approached by sailors from US navy ships who oppose the war saying: "We just want to go home".

In some countries, such as Germany where the government is in opposition to US policy, historic protests also took place. 500,000 marched in Berlin, which represented the biggest demonstration in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Even in the remotest venues such as Antarctica, demonstrations were organised. The tiny British islands of Guernsey and the Shetlands also saw protests against the war.

A measure of the deep-rooted opposition to this war is reflected in the opinion polls in Israel. 45% of Israeli Jews are opposed to the war on the current basis and 20% oppose war on any basis.

Historically, international protests have been organised previously. May Day and the struggle for the eight-hour working day in the 1890s, the solidarity campaign with the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s, and opposition to the Vietnam War, are some examples of international campaigns. However, none of these movements mobilised such numbers from the mass of the population on a single day of international protest, as did February 15.

Splits amongst the ruling class

The mass protests against the war on February 15th were fuelled by the anti-capitalist movement and protests, which had preceded it. The international nature of the protests in Seattle, Genoa, Florence, Amsterdam, etc. helped give the mass protests last weekend the international character they assumed.

A common feature of all of these demonstrations was the high number of people marching for the first time and who have not been actively involved in any political activity before. Whole layers of society are beginning to be politicised. The British Sunday paper The Observer quoted one demonstrator: ’I’m not political, not at all. I don’t even watch the news. I’ve never been on a march in my life and never had any intention. But something’s happened recently, to me and so many of my friends – we just know there’s something going wrong in this country. No ones being consulted, and it’s starting to feel worrying…’ (16 February 2003).

Inevitably the new participants showed a certain political naiveté about the tasks now confronting the anti-war movement and how it can go forward. But many also showed a detailed awareness about the issues involved in this crisis and the hypocrisy of the capitalist politicians who are supporting the war.

The massive size of the protests has surprised and even shaken the capitalist politicians such as Blair and Bush and the ruling class. Bush, Blair, Aznar and other capitalist leaders have been compelled to respond to the protests although they have also made clear that, despite the mass opposition, they are still determined to proceed with military action. Referring to the demonstrations, Bush declared: ’Democracy is a beautiful thing’ but then contemptuously stated that allowing the protesters to influence him is "…like saying I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group". A minimum of 30 million protesters is a very large focus group!

The protests have once again exposed the split that exists amongst the ruling class about prosecuting this war. Once again the reservations and opposition of some capitalist commentators have been openly expressed. The New York Times warned: "With Friday’s show of resistance in the Security Council to early military action against Baghdad, it is easy to imagine some of them (hawks) saying ’I told you so’ and urging the President George W. Bush, to bypass the council and prepare for an invasion joined only by Britain and a narrow coalition of smaller nations. That would be a mistake. Walking away from the UN and important European allies over this issue is not in America’s long-term interests…Significantly, Europe’s biggest demonstrations were in Britain, Spain and Italy, the three countries whose leaders have shown the most inclination to join Washington in military action. Large majorities in America as well as Europe say they want military action against Iraq to proceed only with Security Council endorsement. Bush should heed these views and work with the Security Council to win support for a new resolution. The potential consequences of an Iraq war are far too serious to take without broad international and domestic support." (International Herald Tribune, 19 February 2003).

Opposing this war David Ramsbotham (retired British Adjutant General who fought in the Gulf conflict in 1991) warned Blair: "If he doesn’t take note, he risks destroying the finest army in the world (this is not the nostalgia of an old soldier, but the considered judgment of many international experts), and then he will not be able to punch above his weight on the world stage. But perhaps our involvement in such a deliberate breach of international law will so change the world order that much wider rethinking will anyway be required." (British Guardian, 18 February 2003).

The Generals and army chiefs are also concerned about sending the army to fight a war with such massive opposition at home because of the effects it will have on the morale of the soldiers.

To help allay the fears of sections of the ruling class and to allow Blair, Aznar etc the opportunity to try and at least win back some public support, it now seems that Bush will try and secure a second UN resolution. By doing this they hope to try and avoid some of the consequences of launching unilateral action with the backing Britain and a handful of other countries. A second resolution is a possibility but it seems unlikely at this stage that France will support it.

The reservations and splits amongst the ruling class at a national level have been even more pronounced on the international stage. The decisive effects of the mass opposition to the war, together with the conflict in interests between France, Germany, Belgium and other European powers on the one side and US imperialism on the other, have given rise to unprecedented insults and exchanges between the leaders.

Powell has in effect accused France and Germany of cowardice by arguing that they are: "…afraid of upholding their responsibility to impose the will of the international community."

The arrogance reflected in Rumsfeld’s pronouncement against ’old Europe’ has now been followed by Chirac’s insults against eastern European candidate members of the EU. Chirac dismissed them as "infantile" and "reckless" because of their backing for the USA during the crisis. Like an angry parent scolding a child Chirac told them they had: ’…lost a good opportunity to keep quiet". Tensions within the EU have been raised to an unprecedented level. Like naughty children, the thirteen candidate members were invited to a special meeting of EU ministers but not allowed to attend the summit proper. Poland boycotted the entire meeting. The eastern European countries are outraged at their treatment in the "Club of Equals".

The prospect of eastern European countries joining the EU, and becoming client states of the USA within it, is certain to further increase the antagonism and conflicts within the EU. The threat made by France to delay the timetable for the admission into full membership of eastern European countries is an indication of how polarised the situation has now become. The ’harmonious’ conclusion of the Copenhagen summit on EU expansion in December 2002 now seems like a distant age.

Can the war be stopped?

The question in the minds of many of the protesters on February 15 is – "what to do next and will the mass protests be sufficient to stop the war?" Despite the fact that the representatives of capitalism and imperialism were shocked to the core at the scale of the protest, they nevertheless appear determined to go ahead with this attack. As the CWI has explained in previous statements, under some conditions it is possible for a mass movement to check the war plans of the ruling class or ’executive’ – at least temporarily. However, where the vital strategic and economic interests of capitalism, or those judged to be so by ruling class or its ’executive’, are involved this is not sufficient. Under such conditions, mass mobilisations, strikes and general strikes leading to the overthrow of the government are necessary.

This war is primarily being fought for oil through re-colonisation of Iraq. This remains the long/medium-term object. However, the question of the prestige of the Bush administration and even of US imperialism is increasingly becoming a decisive factor as the crisis unfolds. What is posed is role of US imperialism to act as the ’world’s policeman’. The amassing of such a powerful military machine in the region, which if it were then withdrawn with Saddam still in power, would be a massive blow to the Bush regime and US imperialism itself. Such a development would rapidly finish the Bush administration and seriously damage the prestige and credibility US imperialism.

The war machine is however still facing significant obstacles which it needs to overcome before launching an attack. The US plans to open a northern front against Iraq – seen as vital to ensure a pincer movement against Baghdad – has run into difficulty because of a delay by Turkey in accepting the deployment of US troops.

There is massive opposition to the war in Turkey, running at 90% in recent opinion polls. The Turkish government is desperately trying to squeeze as much financial compensation as possible from the USA in order to try and placate the mass of the population. According to some reports Washington has already offered up to $US26 billion following an initial request from Turkey for US$92 billion which was later scaled back to a request for US$30 billion.

This obstacle is compounded by the demand of the Turkish regime to allow its own troops to follow the US forces into northern Iraq which will open the prospect of a major conflict with the masses in the ’de-facto’ autonomous Kurdish areas.

Blair has attempted to justify a military invasion and wrap himself in the flag of a democratic warrior by asking the question – "if no military action is taken, how will Saddam Hussein be removed?" Blair and his dwindling band of supporters have argued that the policy of a military assault was proved correct in Serbia and was responsible for overthrowing Milosevic.

It was not NATO bombs which overthrew Milosevic but an uprising of the mass of the population in Serbia which brought the regime crashing down – an uprising which Blair conveniently neglects to mention.

Blair’s arguments are dismissive and contemptuous of the Iraqi people. Despite brutal repression and deprivation, the Iraqi masses could carry through an uprising against the brutal dictatorship especially with the support and solidarity of the working class internationally. Neither Blair nor Bush want an independent movement of the workers and peasants of Iraq. They want to prevent it. US and British imperialism stood aside in 1991/2 and allowed Saddam Hussein to crush the Shia uprising in southern Iraq. In 1988 the silence was deafening on the part of imperialism as the brutal regime used chemical weapons and gassed the Kurds in northern Iraq. During the 1980s Blair refused to sign motions in the House of Commons protesting at the sale of weapons to Iraq. US imperialism wants to remove Saddam’s regime so that it can rule Iraq through a military occupation and the installation of a new compliant Iraqi regime.

Many of the largest anti-war demonstrations on February 15, such as that in London, included important sections of workers but they were not organised as a distinct independent working class force. In addition big sections of the middle class and youth and students turned out en mass giving the protests an extremely broad composition. To the banners of ’Artists against the war’ were to be added protests from various religious and Church organisations.

In New York, significantly, although not the dominant force, a section of workers were mobilised by the health workers union local and others who protested together with some of the families of the victims of September 11th.

The masses of participants on the demonstrations were united in opposition to the war. In those countries where the governments support the war there was also a mood of anger and bitterness against the capitalist politicians who are proceeding with war preparations despite the overwhelming and mass opposition from a majority of the population.

The marches were also refreshed by the inventiveness and liveliness of the protestors who spontaneously prepared their own slogans and banners. "If you want oil, go to Galicia" read one banner in Barcelona in an example of black humour following the ’Prestige’ oil disaster. "Stop the Madness of King George" read a banner in New York and another in London "Make tea not war".


The millions who took to the streets on February 15 were also inspired by a mood of international solidarity and opposition to ethnic, national or religious conflict. This was illustrated in the small but significant demonstration of 3,000 Arabs and Jews in Tel Aviv against the war. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, the 20,000 strong protest united Protestant and Catholics in their opposition to Blair’s war preparations. In Cyprus, Turks and Greeks jointly expressed their opposition to the war and in Bosnia a joint demonstration of Croats and Bosnian/Muslims took place.

The internationalism demonstrated on the worldwide protests represents the emergence of a powerful consciousness of the need for working peoples of the world to unite and stand together. The struggle to defend the democratic rights of all oppressed peoples, to fight against imperialist wars and the capitalist system which gives rise to them must be international. The real international community is not to be found in the diplomatic chambers and conference centres of the United Nations. The UN has showed itself to be a gathering of the politicians and diplomats of the rich and powerful elites of the world. It is not the voice of the oppressed working people. Ultimately, it is powerless to challenge the power of US imperialism and its members have no intention of doing so. Such an institution of world capitalism cannot be democratically reformed to reflect the needs of the working peoples of the world. As this crisis has demonstrated the major imperialist powers will ignore its decisions if they disagree with them.

It is necessary to build a mass international of all those exploited by imperialism, capitalism and landlordism. The Committee for Workers’ International is fighting to build a mass international of working people and youth to fight against imperialism and capitalism and to replace them with a socialist society.

In this movement all of the discontent on other social and political issues is also being raised. In particular a deeply rooted opposition, mistrust and even hatred of the rulers is present in the outlook of those who have been aroused into struggle for the first time.

As the CWI has argued in previous statements, – an unprecedented gulf has now opened up between the rulers and the ruled. The war preparations of Bush, Blair, Howard etc are eroding the authority and social basis of the capitalist politicians, political parties and institutions. However, despite the mass protests it seems that these leaders are arrogantly prepared to drive the preparations for war forward.

There is no doubt that the fate of Blair, Aznar and even Bush is being decided in this struggle. The masses will not forgive Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar for a war in the teeth of mass opposition. Blair’s popularity ratings have crashed from +42 in November 2001 to +6 in May 2002 to -20 in February 2003.

Blair has been compelled by the mass protests to reply to the demands of the movement. He has tried to seize the ’moral high ground’ to justify a war. "If there are 500,000 on the march that is less than the number of deaths Saddam has been responsible for. If there are one million, that is still less than the number of people who died in the wars he started." More have and will die as a result of economic sanctions than due to a war, he argued.

The cynical and hypocritical use of such arguments is almost breathtaking. By 1998 500,000 children died in Iraq as a consequence of UN sanctions. According to the Australian journalist John Pilger, 200 children die every day because of the sanctions – 6,000 per month! Who supported and imposed the sanctions? The United Nations and the capitalist politicians! Blair’s ’morality’ consists of a choice -killing thousands slowly through starvation and disease or more quickly through firing cruise missiles. It was US and British capitalism that supported and armed the Iraqi regime in its war with Iran and supplied weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein. The attempt by Blair to take the ’moral high ground’ will be seen as a cynical act of desperation in the face of overwhelming opposition to his support for the war.

Blair’s support for the war is likely to become his Poll Tax – the hated tax which provoked mass opposition leading to the downfall of Thatcher. Even if Blair and Bush win a rapid military victory it is questionable if Blair will recover support because of the anger against him in Britain due to his support for the war and growing opposition to his domestic policies. As in other countries the war is acting as a catalyst for opposition to the government on other issues. On the London demonstration while the opposition to the war was the crucial issue, protesters also chanted slogans supporting the fire fighters as they passed some of the fire stations and opposition to the tuition fees was raised on the march. In New York placards demanding; ’Welfare not Warfare’ were carried by demonstrators.

Blair and Bush were not the only supporters of the war who have been compelled to try and answer the millions who protested and continued to ignore them and support a war. Aznar’s government in Spain reacted in the same provocative arrogant manner. The Minister of Public Administration greeted the millions who protested by concluding that: " at the same time the right of the majority who did not march against the war must be respected". Aznar was compelled to recognise the mass protests and as El País noted: "was compelled to take note of the demonstrations at the weekend which imposed a change if tone". (El País 19 February 2003). In the Congress Aznar argued: " …Peace is possible. Peace is the reason that millions of people have demonstrated throughout the world. It is for that reason we are working with many countries. Saddam Hussein is responsible."

In Spain and in all of the countries where mass protests took place those on the march were supported by numerous others who also opposed the war and must make up a majority on this issue. In the latest polls, 65% oppose the war in Spain even with UN backing. Without it opposition rises to 91%! Even two thirds of the supporters of Aznar’s party, Partido Popular (PP), are opposed to the war.. His wife warned that the party was going "through one of its worst moments in history"! Aznar appears unconcerned at the disastrous consequences of his support for the war on his own party probably because he has already announced that he will not stand again for election. Like Saddam he is prepared to take the PP down with himself to defeat.

Aznar, reflecting the desperation of his party has denounced Zapatero, the Socialist Party (PSOE) General Secretary as being like Saddam Hussein because of his opposition to the war.

In Italy Berlusconi faces equally massive opposition. 68% oppose the war even with UN backing. The Vatican and the Pope have opposed the war which has complicated Berlusconi’s position still further. Neither Spain nor Italy has deployed troops to the Gulf despite supporting Bush. To do so would provoke a mass movement which could overthrow the government in both countries.

In many countries the feeling of the protesters that they represent the majority will give the movement confidence which can be built upon in the coming struggle with the right policies and programme for action. They will be further angered by the announcement that the USA is now embarking on the development of a new nuclear weapons programme.

In the USA, although Bush appears to have the backing of a majority of the US population, the mass demonstrations in the USA last weekend were a warning. They were far bigger than the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations at a comparable stage in the conflict. They showed that the opposition is already gaining in strength before the war has begun. Bush’s support will increasingly be undermined as this crisis progresses. Moreover, the economic crisis and announcement of massive layoffs and cuts in major cities such as New York will further undermine support for Bush. It is possible that Bush junior could face a similar fate as his farther and only head a one- term administration.

As the CWI has explained in its previous statement "Bush and Blair are pinning their hopes on a ’quick, clean military victory’. This is not a certainty. The Saddam regime, especially its crack forces grouped in the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard may put up determined resistance and adopt a ’scorched earth policy’ igniting oil fields and deploying whatever chemical or biological weapons they may have. US and British forces may also encounter determined street and house-to-house fighting in the major cities such as Baghdad and Basra.

After an invasion

However, even in the event of a rapid military victory, US and British forces will be bogged down in an occupation of Iraq for years and the crisis will intensify in Iraq and throughout the region. US imperialism plans a policy of colonial rule – appointing US Generals to run the country involving compliant Iraqis before handing over to a new ’safe’ Iraqi regime. Even the pro-US Iraqi National Congress that represents the old elite in Iraq is opposed to these neo-colonial plans to rule the country by US imperialism.

The main structure of Saddam’s regime – the Ba’ath Party and even the Republican Guard – they want left in tact, Washington sources have said, to help administer the country. As the British Observer pointed out: "The raids would follow heavy aerial leafleting of Iraqi forces in the field and broadcasts encouraging them not to resist. Sources said the aim was not to neutralise the Iraqi army in combat but to make it ’come over’ so it could be used to police the country after Saddam had gone". (2 February 2003).

The Iraqi masses are likely to unleash their hatred against the entire regime. The prospect of a mass uprising by the masses seeking revenge for the repression they have suffered is a serious prospect awaiting US and British forces following a victory. They could be left defending the remains of the very regime they are allegedly fighting the war to remove.

Moreover, the prospect of the disintegration of Iraq and the unleashing of a civil war involving the Shia people in the south, and the Sunni’s and the Kurds, threatens the break up of Iraq in a similar way that took place in Yugoslavia.

This, together with the prospect of the war opening the way for the coming to power of reactionary, anti-western Islamic Fundamentalist regimes, does not point towards a stable optimistic perspective for US imperialism following even a relatively easy military victory.

Those capitalist leaders such as Bush, Blair, Aznar, Howard and Berlusconi who have supported this war will ultimately be held responsible by the masses in their respective countries.

For mass strikes and protests

The central issue facing the working people and youth who massed on the demonstrations is what steps are now necessary to take the anti-war movement forward. Bush, Blair and their supporters have shown that they are not prepared to respond to mass protests alone. The determination of the protesters must now be channelled into the organisation of mass civil disobedience including occupations and strikes and even general strikes.

In Italy on the biggest anti-war demonstration ever Rifondzione Comunista (PRC) carried a massive banner calling for a European wide general strike. A conference of 5,000 metal workers in Bologna also made a call for European wide strike action against the war. These calls for action are against the back- ground of increasing opposition to Berlusconi’s government reflected in the calling of a general strike by the main trade union confederation, the CGIL, on February 21.

Such actions could undoubtedly get a massive response but they need to be concretised and prepared for. Already bus and metro workers in Barcelona stopped work for five minutes on Friday 14th of February to prepare for the demonstration. The tremendous decision of the nine trade unions at Fremantle Harbour in Australia to refuse to work on US war ships is an indication of what should now be prepared.

At the London demonstration the leader of the train drivers union, Aslef, made the call for strike action. In Melbourne, following proposals from the Socialist Party (Australian section of the CWI), the leader of the construction division of CFMEU, Martin Kingham, announced that strikes and lunchtime rallies would be called the day after war is declared.

These initiatives show the way forward. However, they need to be prepared for. Workplaces need to be approached and anti-war committees established in them where possible. Mass meetings and agitation material explaining why strike action is now needed must be distributed. The call for half day strikes and rallies the day after a military attack takes place should be prepared for now. This is the main task facing the anti-war movement following the mass demonstrations on 15 February.

The CWI and its sections will be at the forefront of the struggle to prepare such mass strikes and strengthen the movement against the war. The arrogance of the world capitalist leaders and the horrors that will follow a military attack on Iraq illustrate the need to fight to defeat the capitalist politicians and build an alternative for all working people and youth.

It is necessary to fight to unite the working people’s of the world to struggle for socialism as an alternative to the horrors of capitalism. We urge all workers and young people to join us in that struggle.

  • Form Anti-war committees in all schools, colleges and workplaces!
  • Build for strike action in schools, colleges and all workplaces when war is declared!
  • No War for oil!
  • No taxes to pay for the war!
  • Money for services not war!
  • Withdraw all US, British and Australian military forces from the Gulf!
  • Withdraw Turkish troops from Northern Iraq!
  • Fight the neo-colonialism!
  • Support the Iraqi people’s struggle against Saddam’s Dictatorship!
  • Fight capitalism and imperialism and struggle for world socialism!

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February 2003