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Tens of Thousands Converge on Washington to Protest US Action Against Iraq - 2003-01-19

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Washington and around the world to protest a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq. The marchers invoked the memory of the late Martin Luther King, a famous advocate for non-violent protest in his quest for racial equality in the United States.

Dozens of buses descended on Washington Saturday from around the country. Tens of thousands of protesters, young and old, black and white, braved subzero temperatures to demonstrate against a possible war with Iraq.

At a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol, 58-year-old Ruta Vaskis said she and her husband came from Alaska. "There are protests in Fairbanks, which is where we came from, but this one is a much bigger one," she explained.

Twenty-two year old Matt Denner, from Ames, Iowa, rode all night in a bus to be at Saturday's demonstration. On his head, he held a large stuffed animal that he recovered from a second-hand store. "I'm carrying a 99-cent chicken I got from Goodwill and was inspired to recycle it and challenge our nation's legislators, our leaders and to challenge community members to choose non-violence for resolving international conflicts," he said.

Besides students, the demonstrators included people who were die-hard peace activists and people who were not used to being so vocal.

Maine resident Jane Sees, who said she is in her 60s, said the threat of war hits close to home. "It's much more immediate to fight having a war when a member of your family is involved," she pointed out. "My son is not in the military, but he's a merchant marine, but is carrying materials to the Middle East."

The speakers at the rally included actors and civil rights leaders. Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey described the march that followed as peaceful.

"People can come and they can have a demonstration and be peaceful," he said. "And that's what, really, America is all about. That's what democracy is about -- having an opportunity to voice your opinion about issues, but not do so in a violent way."

Demonstration organizers claimed half-a-million protesters. Chief Ramsey did not give a crowd estimate. But he said he thought there were quite a bit more people than the 100,000 who showed up for anti-war demonstrations in Washington in October.

"When they were marching in October, they had big gaps in the parade. But here, there are some gaps, but not real big gaps. So, that's a lot of people," he said.

Chief Ramsey added there were extra police stationed around a counter-demonstration of about 50 people, but that there were no incidents.

A public opinion poll of more than 1,200 Americans published Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press says 76 percent of Americans support military force against Iraq if U.N. inspectors find weapons of mass destruction. But U.S. public support for military action drops to only 29 percent, if no weapons are found. Around the world, protests against a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq also were held in dozens of countries in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Back in the United States, similar rallies were held in other American cities. A second round of protests is planned outside the White House and elsewhere on Sunday.