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Activists Vow Europe-Wide Protests Against Iraq War

Over a half a million protesters march through the streets of Florence on November 9 to denounce a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

FLORENCE, Italy - Peace activists pledged on Sunday to stage protests across Europe against any war in Iraq, fired by the success of a weekend rally that brought half a million protesters onto the streets of Florence.

They said they were planning to hold a wave of demonstrations in three months' time, but would mobilize supporters sooner if a U.S. attack on Iraq looked imminent.

We have fixed a date of February 15," said Italian militant Piero Maestri at the end of the Florence meeting of European anti-globalization groups, adding that the rallies would be staged simultaneously in all major European capitals.

"Some people wanted to hold it sooner, but the English said they needed more time to organize things. However, if war breaks out beforehand, we will hit the streets immediately," he said.

United in anti-Americanism and riled by a tough new U.N. resolution to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, activists from across the Continent joined forces for a carnival-like peace rally that flooded this Renaissance art city on Saturday.

Some militants indicated that they would not wait until next February before taking to the streets again, saying they were convinced the United States had already decided to wage war on Iraq.

"This war, when it comes, will be one of the most unpopular in history and we have to do something to try to stop it," said Alain Krivine, a far-left French member of the European parliament who took part in Saturday's protest.

"Florence has shown that there is radical opposition, from young and old people, and from all different countries."

The United States insists it does not want a war with Iraq and will only attack if Saddam violates the latest U.N. disarmament resolution.


Organizers and police breathed a collective sigh of relief on Sunday that the demonstration had passed off peaceably, laying to rest the ghosts of the orgy of violence that overshadowed a summit in Genoa last year.

In Genoa a protester was shot dead by police and hundreds injured in running street battles, but in Florence security forces kept a low profile and won praise from all sides.

"I thank with all my heart the security forces who acted with great efficiency and professionalism," Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in a statement.

But protest organizers said that those who had warned of the risk of violence in the run-up to the rally, including the government, now had to eat humble pie. "The list of those who should be apologizing is very long, starting with the prime minister," said Alfio Nicotra, a member of Italy's Refounded Communist Party.

Saturday's march marked the climax of the first European Social Forum, a four-day anti-globalization gathering modelled on the World Social Forum that meets in Brazil each year.

The event drew tens of thousands of participants from dozens of countries from Portugal to Russia, offering delegates the chance to join discussion groups on topics ranging from debt-reduction to support for the Palestinian uprising.

But virulent opposition to any U.S. attack on Iraq proved the dominant theme, with anti-war slogans drowning out all other issues at the rally.

"If nothing else a few more people know that war on Iraq is wrong," said Clarence Jackson, 43, a Londoner selling copies of Socialist Worker on the streets of Florence.

-- Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio



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