A Global Peace Movement Revival

MUMBAI, INDIA -- Natalia Ablova faces a tough challenge in her campaign against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Ablova, who looks like any friendly middle-American in her plain dress, shoulder-length hair and reading glasses, is opposing the Iraq occupation on the streets of Kyrgistan, the only Central Asian country where such protest is permitted.

"There is no chance for participatory democracy in our region," she laments. But last year, she led 30 human rights groups to the U.S. Embassy to denounce the invasion.

Far from being alone, Natalia Ablova is complicating the Bush administration's war planning and its status as the sole superpower. On this March 20, the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the White House expected throngs of cheering Iraqis in the streets, there will be masses of jeering protestors like Natalia Ablova around the world instead. Last year, four to five million people protested in over 600 cities globally. This year the numbers are unpredictable, but opposition to the war has increased among the general public, affecting the American presidential campaign and keeping the United Nations at a distance.

This week Natalia Ablova is attending a "General Assembly of the Global Anti-War Movement," one of the many planning sessions provided space for the tens of thousands attending the World Social Forum.

Instead of weakening or fragmenting the global justice movement, the war in Iraq has prompted a peace movement heavily influenced by the anti-globalization analysis of the forum.

Bremer and Kissinger

The growing demand is not simply to end the military intervention in Iraq but the U.S. takeover of the Iraq economy and its natural resources as well. The protest is not only against the contracting favoritism shown to Halliburton and Bechtel, but the very idea that the Iraqi economy should be contracted out to private foreign corporations in the first place. Seen this way, the Iraq occupation is a perfect real-time example of the Bush administration's doctrine of right-wing market fundamentalism that is being offered as an alternative to religious fundamentalism in the region.

In this context, Paul Bremer is understood not only as point man for the U.S. government, but as managing director of Kissinger & Associates, which represents a secret list of U.S. multinational corporations with long-term stakes in the region. Bremer already has imposed a maximum flat tax of only 15 percent on corporate profits, privatized hundreds of Iraqi businesses and natural resources, and carried free market fundamentalism so far that he faces legal challenges to the U.S. authority based on the traditional international rules governing occupations. In addition, a Bremer order dictates that all non-governmental organizations in the "new Iraq" must be registered and provide detailed membership lists to the American authorities in Baghdad.

Except for Dennis Kucinich, Democratic presidential candidates have been hesitant to criticize the sweeping right-wing agenda in Iraq except for "excesses" like Halliburton's overcharging on petroleum.

But all that will change if the global peace movement succeeds in reframing the debate.

A New Movement

The reframing has already begun among countless activists on the ground. After returning from Iraq last year, Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange raised concerns about the U.S. economic designs on Iraqi wealth. Anti-globalization writer Naomi Klein has published research in The Nation on the attempted sale of Iraq to corporate bidders. This week here, the novelist-turned-activist Arundahti Roy has urged crowds to go home and shut down the corporate offices of firms profiting from the Iraq occupation. Such ideas, which were implemented by effective direct action in San Francisco last year, are circulating rapidly in the thousands of nooks and crannies where movements germinate in a kind of "pre-history" before being recognized in the media.

At a lengthy meeting on the forum grounds today, peace activists known only to each other through phone calls and emails met for the first time, shared their reflections on last year's February demonstrations and their plans for March 20. The discussion revealed a high level of unity and concern for proper messaging, despite the exceptional diversity of cultures, languages, and nationalities in the mix.

Iraqi women, for example, urged the international activists to support the struggles of Baghdad-based NGOs to protect Iraqi businesses and emerging women's groups hard hit by Bremer's recent agreement to waive existing civil laws for religious codes concerning marriage and divorce.

An Indian woman spoke of being "very nervous" about March 20 because over 80 percent of the 100,000 who protested last February were Muslim. "What are we working for, just numbers in the street?" she asked. Or are we trying to build a "broader, non-religious, secular movement emphasizing the questions of Iraq's natural resources and development?"

The World Social Forum, she said, provides an opportunity to build a larger anti-Iraq movement across the deep religious divides of India.

Many speakers impressed the audience with their resistance in remote and difficult circumstances. A Turkish woman recounted how 100,000 people marched last year at just the moment the Parliament was weighing whether to send troops to Iraq. An individual from Montreal described how 200,000 people gathered in 20-below weather for an all-day vigil. A British woman living in the U.S. client state of Qatar spoke of how nervous she was taking her first anti-war stand while the country was "overrun with American soldiers."

An Egyptian peace activist explained the relative absence of mass demonstrations last year. "All of us in the Arab countries are under some sort of military rule. Our governments fear that even a small, permitted peace demonstration will grow into a larger one against our miserable life." He is working nonetheless on a social forum linking peace and democracy.

Less Sloganeering, More Outreach

Several speakers emphasized the need to reach a wider audience, and to conduct the protests in ways supportive of the peace movement in the United States. A Costa Rican delegate stressed that "we must coordinate with the American movements, not let ourselves be seen as anti-American, and not be seen as violent." Another from the Middle East called for "less sloganeering, and more reaching out."

The few Americans present, mostly from branches of United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER, welcomed the international dialogue and support.

An American student reminded the audience that young people had never before been involved on the scale of the February 2003 protests. "Don't say it's not going to be as big this time. The thing is, more people in the U.S. are doubting Bush today than during the protests before the war. The peace sentiment is growing. March 20 should not be measured just as a mobilization but by the base-building and education we do on the corporate takeover of Iraq."

Last year's large-scale protests were the first in memory before a war began, revealing a crucial lack of public consensus as Bush commenced the conflict. With the occupation bogged down, casualty levels rising, and the administration's false claims revealed almost daily, anti-war sentiment has spread to middle America and influenced the tone of presidential debate. Organizing a larger protest is made more difficult in some ways by the peace movement's success, but the need to reframe the message and keep the heat on the presidential candidates will be a major challenge in 2004.

But if Natalia Ablova is marching to the U.S. Embassy once again, anything is possible in this unpredictable movement against war.

Tom Hayden is a progressive activist, author and former California elected official. He is in Mumbai, India, covering the World Social Forum for AlterNet.

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