The police are set to make a dramatic U-turn and allow more than 100,000 anti-Bush protesters to march past Downing Street and Parliament this week, in a major concession to avoid violent clashes with hardline activists.
The Metropolitan police last week banned Thursday's Stop the War Coalition (SWC) march from Whitehall, partly because of security fears that al-Qa'ida terrorists could use the march as cover for an attack and partly because of demands for tight security by the White House.
But as popular support for the march escalated last week, leading the organisers to double the numbers expected, they warned police that the ban could provoke uncontrolled protests and clashes with hardline activists. The SWC, which includes the Muslim Association of Britain and CND, believes the police will allow the march to pass down Whitehall. Last week, President Bush told British journalists he supported the right of Britons to protest.
"As long as we get a march route that takes us as close to the centre of political power, people will feel they've been allowed to express how they feel," said an SWC official.
The coalition has guaranteed the police its event will be peaceful. In an attempt to rebut claims by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, that the protests were just "fashionable anti-Americanism", Thursday's march will be led by US anti-war protesters, including Ron Kovic, the Vietnam veteran profiled in Oliver Stone's anti-war movie, Born on the Fourth of July.
Mr Kovic said: "I and other Vietnam vets can't help but see a mirror image of the Vietnam tragedy unfolding in Iraq. I think one of the most patriotic and democratic things a citizen can do, right now, is march against war and in favour of peace."
Organisers claim scores of coaches have now been booked for the march from around the UK and estimate that hundreds of activists will also come from Europe. Other events are planned for President Bush's visit to Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency on Friday and outside the US consulate in Edinburgh.
However, anarchist groups, anti-globalisation protesters and radical environmentalists are also planning to stage unofficial blockades and sit-down protests, including attempts to break through the security cordon around Buckingham Palace, where the Bushes will be staying, and the American embassy in Grosvenor Square.
They will also target the London HQ of the oil giant ExxonMobil, which has close ties to the Bush administration. Radical groups have organised "non-violent direct action" and legal training this week, in preparation for confrontations with the police.
The security operation is unprecedented. The Met will devote 5,000 officers to the tour, and about 250 White House Secret Service agents and 150 other US security officers are in the UK overseeing arrangements.
The Met has already clashed with the White House over requests to shut down large areas of central London and the City during the visit.
Last week, the Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter said the capital's streets would not be permanently closed. There was already a "high level of alert" in London. "Who knows what terrorists look like? There is always the possibility of someone concealing themselves among the demonstrators."Reuse content