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Indonesians Protest Iraq War, but Turnout is Lower than Anticipated


Thousands of people have taken to the streets Jakarta, Indonesia, to protest the war in Iraq. But the number is low, given expectations of massive protests. The Indonesian government's stiff opposition to the war may be muting the public response.

Demonstrators have protested outside the American Embassy in Jakarta every day since the war in Iraq began last week. They said the U.S. government is guilty of committing terrorism, instead of fulfilling its pledge to fight it.

Mohammed Ihsan Tandjung helped organize one demonstration against the U.S.-led offensive in Iraq. "That is why in this demo we have given an award for George W. Bush, that he is the terrorist number one in the world," Mr. Tandjung said.

But so far, the anti-American protests in Jakarta have been peaceful and smaller than expected - especially when compared with the protests that erupted during the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan in 2001.

Then, protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy for 24 straight days. In at least one demonstration, police fired warning shots over the crowd, to prevent protesters from storming the embassy. In other protests, security forces fired tear gas and water cannons into the crowds. One reason for the muted protests may be Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri's strong condemnation of the war. People may feel her government is more clearly expressing their opinions to the world.

President Megawati calls for the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency session to pressure the United States and its allies to stop the war. She says they must take responsibility for the humanitarian problems caused by the conflict in Iraq. In contrast, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Ms. Megawati quickly pledged to support Washington's war on terror.

It was not until weeks later that she criticized Washington's use of force in Afghanistan. And before she did, tens of thousands of Indonesians took to the streets in protest.

"Now I read in the media and I heard directly from President Megawati that the Indonesian [government] does not agree with the attack and insists the United Nations take measures. So maybe to a certain degree that influences the mood of the marchers," said Din Syamsuddin, head of the Indonesian Council of Ulama, a leading Islamic organization. Last year's terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali also may be discouraging protests. More than 200 people died in October when suspected members of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network bombed two nightclubs packed with foreign tourists. Ulil Abshar-Abdullah, of the Liberal Islam Network, a think-tank based in Jakarta, points out that most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam. He said after the Bali bombing many Indonesians felt the bombers had damaged their country's reputation. People do not want to be linked to extremists, so fewer are taking to the streets.

"So the Bali bombing unified the voice of the moderate, the mainstream of the majority of the people against the radical voice," Mr. Abdullah said. Despite the calm reaction, there are concerns Indonesian radical groups could attempt new terrorism acts to protest the war. The American and Australian governments have renewed their travel warnings about Indonesia, asking citizens to consider leaving because of the possibility that extremists may target Westerners. Moderate Islamic groups are planning protests in the coming days.

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