The United States faced stiff opposition to its war plans on two fronts yesterday, with continuing pressure in the United Nations to remove some of the belligerent language from its proposed Security Council resolution on Iraq and a large anti-war protest bearing down on the White House in Washington.
Busloads of demonstrators began to spill out on to the Washington mall near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday morning, bearing placards that read "Drop Bush, not bombs" and "Regime change begins at home". Organisers were hoping as many as 100,000 people would join the rally, making it the biggest protest for peace since the Vietnam War.
First indications suggested the numbers would be less impressive than the organisers were hoping, but a full roster of celebrity speakers – including such liberal luminaries as Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist, and Ramsey Clark, the pacifist former US attorney general – was nevertheless gearing up to electrify the crowds.
A flurry of demonstrations in other parts of the world timed to coincide with the Washington protest were largely disappointing – just 300 people turned up in Tokyo, 1,500 in Frankfurt and between 5,000 and 10,000 in Berlin. In the US, a second protest march was due to start later in San Francisco, a magnet for left-wing dissenters and anti-war protesters in a country that until now has been largely hypnotised by the Bush administration line on all things terror and war-related.
The demonstrations were a symptom of a deeper, and growing, sense of unease about the United States' intentions in Iraq. Opinion polls show the US public will only throw its support behind a military campaign if it has international backing, but negotiations in the UN Security Council remain deadlocked.
The French government, which has drafted one of two alternate UN resolutions on Iraq, said yesterday it was willing to use the US document – backed by Britain – as a starting point for negotiations, but made clear that certain phrases would have to be modified or dropped.
"We are going to try to work with the Americans on the basis of the text they have proposed. If we don't manage that, then we will obviously officially propose our own text," the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said in a radio interview.
Russia is also developing its own text, creating the risk of a three-way split in the Security Council that will effectively leave the United States stranded. The two most contentious phrases in the US document are a line about Iraq being in "material breach" of previous UN resolutions on eliminating weapons of mass destruction, and the threat of "serious consequences" – widely interpreted as carte blanche for military intervention – if UN weapons inspectors do not gain full access and give the all-clear.
President Bush spent several hours on Friday talking about Iraq with China's President, Jiang Zemin, at his ranch in Texas but apparently failed to overcome Chinese misgivings about the US text. He had been due to meet Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, in Mexico yesterday, but the summit was cancelled because of the hostage crisis in Moscow.
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