Downing Street stepped up its propaganda offensive against anti-war marches yesterday with claims that Saddam Hussein is inflicting misery on his own people.
Tony Blair's official spokesman said that while the Prime Minister accepted that those taking part in the marches were well intentioned, they should remember the millions tortured and starved by the Iraqi dictator.
In a bizarre detail, the spokesman used figures from October's United Nations "oil for food" programme that showed President Saddam ordered 22,000 tonnes of chewing-gum machines and 12,000 tonnes of mobile phones instead of food. Clearly rattled by the expected size of the demonstration in London, Downing Street also compared the one million marchers to the one million Kurds forced to flee Iraq at the end of the Gulf War.
The spokesman pointed to comments by British-based Iraqi dissidents who said it was "a fundamental misunderstanding" to present the situation as a choice between war and peace in Iraq. "There is no peace in Iraq because Saddam is routinely torturing and killing Iraqis," he said.
"People are talking about one million people on the march tomorrow. If that's the case, that would be the same as the number of Kurds who fled into the Iraqi mountains in the face of Saddam's repression after the Gulf War."
The spokesman said no one in government doubted that people taking part in today's marches were motivated by the best intentions and believed sincerely in their views. "In a democracy people are entitled to protest and are entitled to make their views heard and nobody would have it any other way," he said. "But it's worth remembering that if people are saying 'stop the war', there is no military conflict at the moment. The way to prevent any military conflict is for Saddam Hussein to cooperate and fulfil his obligations."
The spokesman also told marchers to remember that the Iraqi people could not share their right to free speech.
Anti-war organisers said they expected up to 150 MPs of all parties to attend the marches. John McDonnell, the Hayes and Harlington MP, asked for a recall of the Labour Party's annual conference and the party's ruling national executive committee to debate Iraq. Mr McDonnell will shun Tony Blair's speech at the party's spring conference in Glasgow in order to take part in a demonstration there. "The general view is [that it is better] to take part in a peace demonstration rather than a stage-managed conference in Glasgow," Mr McDonnell said.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies