World reacts to the invasion of Iraq with protests and prayers

TOKYO (AP) - As Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's last chance to avoid invasion slipped away and explosions rocked Baghdad, Australia's leader prayed for the coalition forces but students in that country walked out of classes in protest.

In Tokyo, riot police tightened security around the U.S. Embassy, where demonstrators staged a fast. Hundreds of activists surrounded the embassy in Manila, clanging pots and blasting antiwar slogans through bullhorns.

Broadcast live from Sydney to Beijing to New York, the first salvos of the long-anticipated invasion of Iraq were met with a mixture of anger, fear and hope from a world deeply divided over the war ahead.

In New York, many people greeted the start of military action against Iraq with support and relief that the waiting was over.

"It's about time," said Irving Levine, 71, who spent a year displaced from his home near ground zero because of the Sept. 11 attacks. "It's the best medicine for anti-Americanism around the world I can imagine."

But around the globe, the reaction was mixed.

"I came here because I wanted to do something," said college student Hiroichiro Oe, one of six demonstrators fasting outside the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo as riot police in heavy body armour stood nearby.

"Ordinary people are going to be the victims of this war," he said.

About 200 people joined the demonstration outside the embassy. A beefed up contingent of police with shields and staffs looked on, but there were no clashes.

"It's outrageous - they have no just cause for war," said Fumio Naotsuka, a high school teacher. "America is trying to change the regime in Iraq, and that's just arrogant."

Just before the air raid sirens began to wail in Baghdad, one of U.S. President George W. Bush's staunchest supporters, Australian Prime Minister Howard, went to church to pray for the safe return of the 2,000 troops he has committed to the U.S.-led coalition.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also voiced solidarity with Bush.

"The Philippines is part of the coalition of the willing," she said in a speech at the Philippine Military Academy in northern Baguio city. "The war in Iraq is a reality that we expected. We expect it to be surgical, short and swift."

But many political leaders faced a public that remained strongly opposed to the war, which was launched without the mandate of the United Nations Security Council, where France, Russia and Germany led efforts to pursue diplomacy, not force.

Officially, Japan is firmly behind Bush.

In a country where the memories of The Second World War are still painful, however, even senior officials expressed regret that force couldn't be averted.

"I'm feeling mixed emotions," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told reporters shortly before the first blasts were heard in Baghdad.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in a televised meeting with the media, stressed that though Japan supports the U.S. attack on Iraq, it would not take part in combat.

"We hope that the war ends promptly," he said, adding that Tokyo is focusing on what it can do to help in the country's rehabilitation process after the conflict is over.

A poll released Tuesday showed 71 per cent of voters oppose Australian involvement in U.S.-led strikes on Iraq without an explicit UN mandate. Protest groups were preparing for rallies in major cities this weekend.

Students began leaving Australian schools and universities to protest the war and Australia's involvement in it.

"The war has begun so we are protesting," Sydney University activist Simon Butler said. "We will not sit in class and pretend everything is normal while our government helps carry out this massacre in our name."

The students were expected to mass in downtown Sydney. Peace activists also were planning to converge on the U.S. Embassy in Canberra.

Protests were expected elsewhere as well.

In the first hours of the attack, Pakistan's Interior Ministry spokesman Iftikar Ahmed said he expected small protests.

"Security arrangements have been made to handle these protests, but with tact," he added. "We will do it without the use of force."

In India, opposition was also heard.

"This is the beginning of the end of the domination of Western nations," said popular Indian filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, who in January refused Bush's invitation for a prayer breakfast at the White House.

"It is going to be a long drawn out tragedy. They may win this battle but they will lose this war," Bhatt said.

With the passing of Bush's deadline for Saddam to quit Iraq, Chinese state television ran unprecedented live coverage, signalling concern over developments among communist leaders who oppose the war.

In Hong Kong, Ngai Sik-wai, a 40-year-old restaurant owner, watched a local TV broadcast of Bush's speech announcing the invasion with a number of his customers.

"There's nothing good about war," he said. "It's best to have peace in the world."

Leading members of the 116-member Non-Aligned Movement - South Africa, Malaysia, Cuba - denounced military action against Iraq.

"We view the imminent unilateral military action by the U.S. and its allies as an illegitimate act of aggression," the three countries said in a statement released by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry.

South Africa, Malaysia and Cuba, which are the past, present and future chairmen of the grouping, said a unilateral U.S.-led attack on Iraq would be "an illegitimate act of aggression."

© The Canadian Press, 2003

Antiwar activists hold protests and vigils in Washington, other cities
An anti-war protester is arrested across the street from the White House Wednesday. (AP /Rick Bowmer)

WASHINGTON (AP) - Antiwar protesters held noisy chants and quiet prayers across the United States on Wednesday as Washington moved closer to invading Iraq. Demonstrators were arrested after sitting down on the street in front of the White House and blocking entrances to government buildings in other cities.

"This is the last plea to avoid war," said John Passacantando, executive director of the environmental group Greenpeace, which joined a protest of 200 people in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Protests also took place in New York, Boston, Detroit and other cities.

About 50 metres away from the main protest in Washington, some 100 members of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace group, formed a circle and prayed for peace. Many carried photos of Iraqi women and children.

"This war would have started two months ago if it were not for our actions," said Judith Kelly, 57, of Arlington, Va. "Our prayers, our vigils, our actions, they all count."

Several protesters, covered in fake blood and bandages and carrying dolls representing dead babies, visited the offices of congressional leaders. "Blood is on their hands," said one demonstrator, Constance Pohl, 63, of Baltimore.

In the evening, around 200 demonstrators, some wearing red dye on their faces and clothes to represent anticipated Iraqi civilian casualties, blocked rush hour traffic as they marched from a park near the White House to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's house in northwest Washington. One person was arrested. "War is reprehensible," said one protester, Ryan Gardiner, 31, of Falls Church, Va.

Outside Rumsfeld's house, the crowd pleaded "Show your face," and held bloodstained baby-size coffins in the air while chanting: "You have blood on your hands."

"This is absurd. The president and his staff are war mongers and leading the United States in a terrible direction," said John Parrish, 44, of Silver Spring, Md.

The coalition Win Without War announced plans for a candlelight vigil once hostilities break out.

Following the prayer vigil, 27 protesters were arrested after climbing over a temporary metal fence separating the park from Pennsylvania Avenue. A White House staff photographer took pictures of demonstrators as they were cuffed.

In New York City, protests in downtown Manhattan drew about 300 people.

"I came because I have a feeling of helplessness that war is inevitable," said Robert Packer, 39, of Manhattan. "I couldn't let it happen without feeling I was doing something."

Anti-war protesters were arrested in Boston and Detroit for blocking entrances to federal buildings. In Madison, Wis., protesters blocked the entrance to Truax Field, home to a National Guard unit.

"I believe Saddam needs to be taken out of power but not by killing of thousands of Iraqis," said Arriel Lannen, 23, of Arlington, Mass.

In Australia, protesters barricaded the gates of Prime Minister John Howard's mansion in Canberra on Wednesday, angering the leader and forcing him to leave on foot.

Greenpeace demonstrators dressed as United Nations staff chained themselves to gates and under cars, blocking all the entrances of the residence, known as The Lodge, in the capital. The protesters met no resistance from police or security guards when they arrived early in the morning.

The protest came a day after Howard said Australian forces would join the U.S. coalition to invade Iraq if Saddam refuses to leave the country.

Greenpeace's Australia chief executive, Peter Mullins, confronted Howard outside the mansion.

"I wanted to tell him to his face that his decision to go war in Iraq was his decision alone and was certainly not the Australian population's," Mullins said.

Howard listened to Mullins' comments and replied: "I respect your views but I'd like you to respect mine."

Later, students began walking out of Australian schools and universities to protest against the war and Australia's involvement in it.

"The war has begun so we are protesting," Sydney University activist Simon Butler said.

"We will not sit in class and pretend everything is normal while our government helps carry out this massacre in our name."

The students were expected to mass in downtown Sydney for an anti-war demonstration, Butler added.

Peace activists also were planning to converge on the U.S. Embassy, said protester Rick Kuhn.

Earlier Thursday, peace activists said Howard could be prosecuted in an international court for war crimes if an attack on Iraq results in the "unjustifiable" death of Iraqi civilians.

Lawyers representing 41 humanitarian, church, union and community groups said they would write Thursday to Howard about concerns U.S. military forces would violate international humanitarian law during their military offensive on Iraq.

Thousands of protesters plan to converge on the national parliament in Canberra on Sunday to demonstrate against the war and smaller protests are expected to erupt in towns and cities across the country.

In Greece, hundreds of people holding candles and waving banners condemning a U.S.-led war against Iraq staged protests early Thursday outside the U.S. Embassy in Athens.

About 700 people gathered around the embassy chanting "We don't want war" and "Out with the Americans."

A few hundred people also staged a similar protest outside the American consulate in the northern port of Thessaloniki.

Labour unions and anti-globalization activists have called for a three-hour general strike Friday, mass protests and a march to embassy in Athens. The unions also called on students to hold sit-ins at schools around the country.

© The Canadian Press, 2003