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Hundreds of thousands march against war in Iraq in Italian rally

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched through Florence to oppose a war on Iraq in what could prove to be the world's biggest street protest yet against US sabre-rattling toward Baghdad.
Between 400,000 and one million people -- according to respective police and organizers' estimates -- braved the cold to march through this heavily policed Renaissance city, but the mood remained festive with no reported incidents.

Organizers had promised a peaceful rally against war and globalization, but officials and locals feared it could turn into a violent repeat of last year's G-8 summit riots in Genoa.

Many downtown shops were closed, some boarded up, and more than 4,000 police were deployed to protect the town's treasures and monuments -- including Michelangelo's famous sculpture David -- many dating back to the Renaissance.

The rally was billed as the climax of the European Social Forum, a five-day gathering of the anti-globalization movement that drew 50,000 people, more than twice original estimates.

But with events on Iraq moving quickly, the war theme took precedence.

The protest came a day after the UN Security Council passed by unanimity a US-proposed resolution which required Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to abolish Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Demonstrators leading the march carried banners proclaiming "No to War" as the huge rally wove along a three-kilometer (1.8 mile) stretch that skirted Florence's historic center and ended up at the city's football stadium.

Many demonstrators, like many commentators in the Italian press, deplored the UN resolution as a vehicle opening the way for what they called a "pre-emptive war" on Iraq.

Organizers had expected 300,000, but even the initial conservative estimates of turnout surpassed this.

In late September, protests against the Bush administration's stance on Iraq were staged in Washington and other world capitals but the largest of these -- in London and Rome -- only drew about 100,000 people each.

The huge turnout on Saturday forced authorities to add trains as demonstrators -- mostly Italians -- poured into Florence's central station to take part in the rally.

The anti-globalists were joined by many other groups, including union activists, pacifists, Catholics, former communists, ecologists, and Fiat car workers. Many young people were present.

There was a huge showing by Italy's largest trade union, the CGIL, which was charged with the delicate task of maintaining order at the march and were seen along the route shepherding stray marchers back into the fray.

The head of the EU executive, the European Commission, Italian Romano Prodi, said he would watch what happens in Florence.

"The young people must be heard, which does not mean their opinions must always be shared," he said at a congress in the northern city of Bologna. "But in this time of change, the voice of youth is of major importance."

An evening concert at the football stadium was to close events for the day.

A police helicopter circulated over the area, and officials said they had prepared a hundred or so cells in a nearby prison.

Despite fears of trouble, authorities did not close off the center of this Tuscan capital. The city's famed museums and central cathedral, Il Duomo, with its landmark 15th-century dome by Brunelleschi, were also kept open.

But most of the downtown shops remained shut and many tourists stayed away, given the city's historic center an unusually deserted feel.

The march through Florence had come under heavy criticism from Italy's center-right government and conservatives, who feared a repeat of the violence at last year's Group of Eight summit in Genoa in which a demonstrator was killed and hundreds were injured.

About 300,000 demonstrators attended the Genoa summit.

The anti-globalization movement, which includes a vast range of groups from environmentalists and pacifists to anarchists, argues that governments and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund put the interests of big companies ahead of those of ordinary people.



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