Three years ago, the world witnessed something unprecedented. On the same day, in 900 cities in forty countries north and south, east and west, thirty million people took to the streets in protest against the imminent attack on Iraq. There were demonstrations in Moscow, Karachi, Dhaka, Manila, Johannesburg, Cairo, Kinshasa, Tel Aviv, among many others, but the biggest turn-outs were in the belligerent nations. The marches in Britain, Spain, Italy and Australia were probably the largest in their countries’ histories.
On 15th February 2003, I was lucky enough to find myself in New York. Here, in the city whose suffering on 9/11 had been the pretext for the escalating war on terror, half a million people braved freezing temperatures and police hostility to voice their dissent, their rage and their hopes. In race, age, sexuality and occupation the protesters were as diverse as the city itself. And it was clear from the speeches and from comments in the crowd that the dissident New Yorkers took comfort in the global nature of this protest. They knew they formed part of a human majority.
There had been international protests in the past, but on those occasions a turn-out of a few thousand in half a dozen cities might have been deemed a success. February 15th was something different: in numbers, in geographical spread, and in its impact on public consciousness.
Nonetheless, three years on, the war in Iraq continues, and the protesters’ fears have been realised many times over. The US-UK invasion uncovered no weapons of mass destruction but did plunge millions of Iraqis into even greater misery than they had known before, which is why in a survey of Iraqi opinion conducted by the British Ministry of Defence, 82% wanted a prompt end to the occupation. Iraqis have endured three years of lawlessness, disrupted power and water supplies, human rights abuses (tens of thousands detained without charge, many tortured), economic breakdown, increasing disease, and lethal violence.
Bush himself conceded that he thought 30,000 Iraqis had been killed in the conflict so far. A statistical analysis recently published in the US-based Counterpunch magazine working from data collected in 2004 by researchers from Johns Hopkins University concludes that the "best estimate for deaths inflicted to date as a result of the invasion and occupation stands at 183,000. Even the facts as presented by the Pentagon imply death and injury on a huge scale. A report to Congress indicates that in the second half of 2005 there were on average 60 Iraqis killed per day a fifty per cent increase over the previous year. In the same six-month period, US forces conducted more than 400 air-strikes, involving bombers, gunships or unmanned drones. Since March 2003, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone has dropped more than 500,000 tons of ordnance on Iraq, compared to the two million tonnes dropped by all US forces in the entire course of the Vietnam war.
Countless horrors have accompanied the conflict. The looting and destruction of Iraq’s (humanity’s) ancient heritage. The wave of kidnapping and assassinations that has taken the lives of more than 250 of the country’s leading educators and intellectuals. The one hundred journalists killed either by the occupiers or the resistance. The plunder of the the Iraqi treasury by corrupt officials and multi-national corporations. The erosion of women’s rights.
The occupiers have proclaimed one turning-point after another. But despite referenda and elections, constitutions and cabinets, the high-tech bludgeoning of alleged rebel hot-beds such as Fallujah, Tal Afar, Samarra, Al-Qa’im, Haditha, Ramadi, and Husaybah, warfare continues and self-determination for Iraqis remains a remote prospect. The writ of the central government remains negligible and its authority dependent on the 180,000 US-led foreign troops. Meanwhile, the occupiers’ divide-and-rule strategy (the only one left in their arsenal once it became clear that the bulk of the population, however relieved to be rid of Saddam Hussein, did not welcome their presence) has unleashed sectarianism and pushed Iraqi society perilously close to civil war.
A common theme of speeches at the 15th February demonstrations was that attacking Iraq was likely to increase the jihadi terrorism it was supposed to combat. So it has proved – in Iraq, in London and elsewhere. In Greek mythology, Cassandra’s tragedy was that she saw the future but no one believed her predictions. The protesters’ tragedy was that nearly everyone believed their predictions but the rulers proceeded on course for disaster regardless.
The remaining proponents of the initial invasion argue that all this is still better than rule by Saddam Hussein. Many in Iraq would disagree, but in any case what kind of a measure is this? Are these the only alternatives the west is prepared to offer the people of Iraq? For the dead, injured, impoverished and abused, this kind of calculus never adds up.
In the US and Britain, more people than ever broadly agree with the what the protesters were saying three years ago, but there are fewer people protesting. Ironically, one of the reasons for the decline in numbers on the streets is the extraordinary success of 15th February, and the concomitant sense of failure that ensued. The record-breaking turn-outs did not stop the US and Britain from going to war. "We protested in huge numbers, numbers never seen before, and still it made no difference, people in London say. "They didn’t listen. They never listen. So what’s the point of protesting again?
Actually, it’s far too early to judge the long-term significance of what happened on 15th February 2003. People who took part in the non-cooperation and civil disobedience campaigns in India in the twenties and thirties had to wait a long time for swaraj. There were eight years of protest and more than two million dead before the Vietnam war came to an end.
Many demonstrators who hoped to deter the invasion of Iraq probably underestimated what they were up against: not just a rogue US president but a sole superpower accustomed to shaping a global order of extreme inequality to its advantage. Reigning it in will be the work of more than a day of demonstrations, no matter how huge. What 15th February did display, spectacularly, was the existence of a popular internationalism that has grown in the shadow of elite-driven globalisation. Whether and in what manner the day is remembered in the future will depend on how the contest between the two unfolds.
This column originally ran in The Hindu.