by Haider Rizvi
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Joining others around the world, tens of thousands of people in cities across the United States took to the streets Saturday calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq and immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country.
Marking two years since the U.S.-led bombing and invasion of Iraq, peace groups planned more than 800 events nationwide, including rallies, marches, civil disobedience actions, silent vigils, theatrical performances and art exhibits.
In New York, the largest city in the United States, protesters gathered outside the United Nations headquarters and marched to Times Square, the hub of the entertainment business. With the silence of grief and sorrow in the air, the marchers carried hundreds of coffins symbolising the thousands of deaths caused by the U.S. war on Iraq.
"We need policies at home to help the poor, not war," said Ted Desoyza, a 76-year-old woman holding a coffin draped in a U.S. flag. "This war is for the big companies and their profits. They have no right to rule our country."
"We mourn the death of all," added anther woman who stood next to Desoyza, while holding a coffin draped in black, a symbolic act to mourn the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians at the hands of U.S. military.
Another mass rally and march went from the historic African-American neighbourhood of Harlem to Central Park.
Since the start of U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, more than 1,500 U.S.. soldiers have died, and about 25,000 are believed to be wounded. The Pentagon has never released official figures on the deaths of Iraqi civilians, but rights groups claim that the ongoing military operations have led to more than 100,000 casualties in Iraq.
The U.S. has more than 150,000 troops in Iraq. Peace groups say that with the armed resistance to the occupation growing and the likely withdrawal of troops by other nations, like Italy, the George W. Bush administration may be forced to institute an involuntary draft to fill the ranks of the military.
Mindful of the consequences of such a move, anti-war groups are planning a nationwide campaign next week to say "No draft, no way." Some have already resorted to civil disobedience by protesting in front of the military recruiting centers in many cities.
"It's clear that the Pentagon is planning to bring the draft," Dustin Langley, one of the organizers of the campaign, told IPS. "But before they do this, we'll be mobilising the campuses all over the country."
Langley's group, called the Troops Out Now Coalition, plans to launch its anti-draft campaign on Mar. 31 by blocking the way to recruiting centers and organising student walk-outs. The Saturday march in New York already involved such actions. Organisers said police arrested eight activists for trying to shut down a recruiting center.
"Many of us will put our bodies between the recruiting stations and the young people they want to want use as war fodder," said Ruth Benn, an activist affiliated with the War Resistance League, one of the groups that organised the march. "We will shut them down."
Recently, some U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq have gone public in their criticism of the administration's policies. While some of them have fled to Canada, where they are applying for asylum, others are seeking protection from the courts as "conscientious objectors."
At least several hundred U.S. soldiers have applied for conscientious objector status in the past year, according to the Centre on Conscience and War, which advises the U.S. military on discharges based on ethical concerns. The administration has kept silent on this issue.
While thousands of people protested around the world, Bush defended the war in a radio address, saying that it took place "to disarm a brutal regime, free its people and defend the world."
Some anti-war activists charge that Bush is far more interested in protecting the profits of the arms industry.
"He has brought to American people nothing but shame," Howard Zinn, the renowned U.S. historian and author of the popular book, "A People's History of the United States," told protesters. "They say they are waging war on terrorism. War is terrorism."
No leading politician from the Democratic Party participated in the anti-war protests, nor made any speeches at the rallies. The event was organized by a nationwide coalition representing an array of grassroots community peace and social justice groups.
In addition to Europe and many Muslim countries, thousands of people in Australia, Japan, and Britain also protested against the invasion of Iraq, where their troops are supporting the U.S. military.
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