Just Say No?

peace rallyOn March 20, 2004 the streets of New York City were flooded with brass bands, protesters handing out socialist pamphlets, activists in turtle costumes and disturbingly realistic George W. Bush masks. In addition to “The World Still Says No To War,” signs, the protest included messages such as "Mozambique Out of Burundi," “Legalize Marijuana” and "Belize is for Peace." Activists in attendance also grappled with questions regarding what the best course of action in Iraq should be. It was easy to say no to war before the war began, but now that it is “over” what should the peace movement demand?

The message proposed by International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice, the main coordinators of the March 20th peace rally in New York City, was to “Bring the Troops Home Now.”

This demand, however, raised serious concerns among more than a few activists. To many of the anti-war protesters who were out in full force last year -- and who continue to show their support today -- demanding the withdrawal of all troops immediately seems too simplistic. They argue that a multilateral solution, where the United Nations takes on a stronger peacekeeping role, is the best course of action until an interim Iraqi government is established.

Though the majority of activists that I spoke with at the rally supported the demand to pull all troops out of Iraq immediately, there were many who thought otherwise. Kate, from New Paltz, New York explained, “Coalition forces have completely demolished any form of government and infrastructure in Iraq. We can’t just pull out now after what we’ve done, it will just be a breeding ground for terrorism.”

Tyler, from Monroe, New York agreed, “Immediate evacuation of troops would not help the area at all. We shouldn’t have been there in the first place but now that we are there, we definitely need to give the Iraqi people their power.”

With frequent attacks on coalition forces, U.S. troops are far from enjoying a warm welcome from the Iraqi people. Many activists in the U.S. argue that greater United Nations involvement could result in a smoother transfer of power to the Iraqi people. Whereas the U.S. is a deeply mistrusted force, the UN represents a more democratic coalition of nations. Yet as the organization that implemented the devastating trade embargo against Iraq for so long, the UN would hardly be a welcomed group either. With the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government planned to take place this June 30th and general elections for a transitional assembly scheduled for January 2005, it is possible that the situation in Iraq may improve. However, with bombings and shootings continuing daily, it does not look likely.

peace rallyDespite the concern of many anti-war protestors about the simplistic message proposed by International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice, the March 20th rally still managed to attract an estimated 100,000 people. Making my way through the lively crowd, I was able to speak with various people about their reasons for demanding the immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq.

One teacher from New York told me that the Iraqi resistance would not give up until the U.S. leaves and that so far, “multinational war profiteers are making the most of the Iraqi freedom.”

Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, elaborated on this idea, “The way you start a military occupation is to send troops in and the way you end an occupation is to bring the troops out. It is virtually impossible to build anything approaching a new democratic set of institutions when your nation is being occupied by a foreign army.”

Cagan responded to criticisms of the "Bring the Troops Home Now" demand by saying that it is important to put out an extreme version of a demand so that you don’t end up settling for less than what you had to. “If somebody isn’t saying ‘end this occupation and end it now,’ then the conversation moves further and further to the middle.”

Emily, a journalist from Long Island, justified her opinion that troops should immediately leave Iraq. “The US is only working with the most cooperative Iraqi political groups, and these groups don’t necessarily represent the needs of the people. By supporting one group over another, the U.S. is creating more division among Iraqis. We need to let the Iraqi people decide how their country is run.”

But what do the Iraqi people have to say? The BBC recently conducted a poll in which of the 2,652 Iraqis surveyed, 39% supported the presence of coalition forces in Iraq, 36% said they should stay in Iraq until an Iraqi government was in place, and 15% said troops should leave immediately. 17% considered attacks on coalition forces acceptable. This poll suggests that, once again, nothing is ever as black and white as many would like it to be. (For more information on this Iraqi opinion poll and others see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3514504.stm)

So where does this leave the peace movement? Can it responsibly demand the withdrawal of all troops immediately, or should it push for a multilateral approach to transferring power to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible?

It is hard not to be suspicious of the U.S. government's efforts to push for an interim Iraqi government, especially after they lied to us by saying that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent threat to U.S. security. It is difficult to believe that any government that the U.S. sets up in Iraq will, as Emily said, represent the needs of the Iraqi people.

Yet who knows, next year the activist slogan might be, “Peacekeeping Troops Back to Iraq! You Made the Mess, Now Stay and Clean It Up!”

Benjamin Dangl is an activist, freelance journalist and editor of The Upside Down World news at www.UpsideDownWorld.org

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