Why we were right to protest the Iraq war

February 9, 2023
Photo: Sydney Stop the War Coalition

The 20th anniversary of the then largest protest in world history is on February 15. As time passes, memories fade. But the huge 2003 protests against the Iraq war are worth remembering.

Looking back, three things stand out.

The scale

The warmongering elites — who are today planning ever more wars — don’t want us to remember because it undermines their power.

But tens of millions of people, in more than 600 cities, took to the streets to stop George W Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq. It was difficult to judge the scale at the time. Most media outlets downplayed the numbers and the mood, mainly reporting local or regional actions, minimising the global impact.

New York Times, however, described the protests as a “superpower”. It said: “The huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion”.

The weekend of protest in Australia began on February 14, 2003, when 250,000 people protested in Melbourne — rivalling the huge anti-Jeff Kennett demonstrations of a decade earlier.

The next day similar numbers came out across other cities and towns. Then, on February 16, more than half a million people protested in Sydney’s CBD, gridlocking the city.

More than 1 million people joined protests across Australia, including in more than 30 locations outside the capital cities.

Worldwide estimates of the number of people range from 10–15 million. However, these were often based on partial tallies. Some activists at the time calculated totals of around 20–30 million, when some of the more sizeable small towns protests were included. One French academic calculated that 36 million people participated in 3000 protests against the Iraq war between January 3 and April 12, 2003.

The anti-war movement was right

The United States, British and Australian governments made repeated and false claims to justify their illegal invasion.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations on February 5, 2003, that he had “incontrovertible” proof that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”. After the invasion, no such weapons were found.

“Weapons of mass destruction” became synonymous with government lies.

The anti-war movement, of which Green Left was a part, exposed this in real time and the lies were answered by millions of people 10 days after Powell’s UN appeal for war support.

On all of the warmongers’ key claims, the anti-war movement has been proven to be correct.

The lies we’re told today about the supposed “need” for fossil fuels, their ongoing justifications for militarism and why they oppose wage rises, are just as egregious and need to be answered in the same way.

Protests make a difference

It was a defeat for the anti-war movement when the US, Britain and Australia launched their illegal invasion of Iraq. Activists continued to organise to get the troops out, however the numbers prepared to continue to protest declined.

Many who had come to their first ever big protest were discouraged that such a huge global mobilisation failed to stop the war. Afterwards, it was common to hear people repeat the corporate media’s line that there was no point protesting when the government didn’t listen.

It is important to recognise the ways in which that global protest movement made a difference. The ruling elite clocked the global opposition, even complaining their armed forces could not use as much “shock and awe” as they had intended. The war hawks had to temper their invasion plans beyond Afghanistan and Iraq.

The people of Iraq and Afghanistan were smashed, their resources privatised and countries levelled. However, wider layers of people saw the US and its Coalition of the Willing, including Australia, as imperialist warmongers.

Green Left is continuing to campaign against war, including Russia's war on Ukraine, Turkey's war on the Kurds, and AUKUS — the new imperialist war alliance, which is aimed at China.

If you prefer peace over war, justice over tyranny and truth over lies, become a Green Left supporter today. Also, please donate to our Fighting Fund.

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