You are here

February 15, 2003: The day the world said no to war

Sid Lacombe

February 15, 2023
The demonstrations on February 15, 2003 against the then impending war on Iraq remain one of the largest ever coordinated days of protest on any issue. Researchers studying the figures estimate that more than 20 million people marched in more than 600 cities around the globe on that day. The numbers were so striking that even the New York Times which infamously supported the war, said the protests showed that there were, "two superpowers on the planet – the United States, and worldwide public opinion”.
As day broke in Canada the scale of the demonstrations became clear. We heard reports of tens of thousands at marches in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea. A million marched in Jakarta and many thousands more across India and Pakistan. China was the only state to say that there were no protests but even there, smaller gatherings denounced the war. 
The protests in Europe were massive - more than a million in London, 3 million in Rome, a half million in Berlin, more than 1.5 million in Madrid and hundreds of thousands in other cities in the Spanish state. Hundreds of thousands marched in Athens, Paris, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Lisbon.
There were protests across Africa from Tunisia to Cape Town, while in the Americas the strong turnouts continued. Tens of thousands marched in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Mexico City and Sao Paolo.
In the US, the belly of the imperial beast, there were demonstrations in large cities and small towns. The largest were protests of hundreds of thousands in New York and San Francisco and there were tens of thousands in multiple cities including Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago. 
In Canada more than a half million marched in more than 70 cities and towns. The largest demonstration was in Montreal with 120,000, 80,000 in Toronto and around 50,000 in Vancouver. There were incredible scenes of thousands braving subzero temperatures and blizzards to join protests in Saint John and across the Maritimes. 
A war based on lies
Most wars carried out by the Imperial powers are based on lies but with the war in Iraq the lies were exposed early and the fabricated justifications for the war held no sway over huge swaths of the population.
The US administration of George W. Bush had made a case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and therefore had to be neutralized as part of the war on terror. 
But Bush’s case was paper thin. UN weapons inspectors had publicly stated that there were no weapons in the country and the attempts to convince us otherwise - such as the famous presentation by Colin Powell at the UN, provided nothing but vague circumstantial evidence. 
Attempts to paint Iraqi President Saddam Hussain as a harbourer of terror with links to Al-Qaeda were even less convincing. But that didn’t stop the rulers of the imperial powers from trying. The British state and the Labour PM Tony Blair were early supporters of the war and they even produced falsified intelligence in what became known as the 'dodgy dossier' suggesting that Saddam Hussein would be able to attack Britain with weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. There was never any evidence of this, but the imperialists were determined to make the invasion happen. 
The fact that Iraq held the second largest proven oil reserves made it far too juicy a target to be left alone. But it wasn’t simply about the oil. The Bush administration had a larger ambitions and had determined that they were to be the unrivalled superpower globally. This was a war for control. 
The US had decided after the September 11 attacks to use the genuine horror at those killings as a justification for a widespread war on terror. They began with the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 but quickly turned their attention to Iraq. The war drums got louder as the year went on. The deployments of troops and equipment began in 2002, signalling that this was a fait accompli for Bush. 
Canada’s role
The Canadian Prime Minster at the time, Jean Chretien, was a supporter of the war himself. His Defense Minister John McCallum stood on the lawn of the White House in 2002 saying that Canada would be members of the ‘coalition of the willing’ and would join the invasion. On numerous occasions he spoke about the need to support our allies, the US, in their fight. 
Canada also tried to push what the media dubbed the ‘Canadian compromise’ at the UN which entailed a few more weeks of weapons inspections followed by a UN endorsed invasion. It failed which meant Chretien couldn’t hide behind a UN mandate. 
It was the massive days of action, particularly the 250,000 strong union-led protest in Montreal on March 15, 2003 that eventually stayed Chretien’s hand and forced him to declare that Canada would not participate. 
Yet Canada did all it could to support Bush’s war efforts in other ways. Thousands of Canadian troops were sent to Afghanistan to free up US forces for Iraq. Canadian warships continued to patrol the Persian Gulf and aid the war effort under the auspices of the UN led anti-terror operations. 
The invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003 with what US officials called a shock and awe phase of cruise missile attacks and air strikes. The ground invasion began soon after. 
It is estimated that 1 million Iraqis were killed. Tens of thousands were imprisoned and tortured by US forces in the same jails that Saddam Hussein had used to house opponents. Millions more still suffer from the destruction of the country and the toxic consequences of the war. The country was left in ruins and the people of Iraq continue to pay the price. 
The protests may not have stopped the war, but they left a lasting legacy. The coalitions and networks established by the movement were instrumental in supporting further causes like the campaign to allow US war resisters to stay in Canada. They built a strong base to oppose the war in Afghanistan. There are millions who marched that day who will never believe the lies peddled to them by their leaders in the future.
Crucially, the heroic resistance of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan humiliated the imperialists in the US and showed that the largest military in the world can be defeated by the power of the people. 
That resistance remains on the mind of military planners in the US and has shut down further large scale Imperial misadventures in places like Iran. The US wanted to take on Iran after the invasion of Iraq but have had to hold off because they were so clearly defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the dynamic of capitalism and the need for states to compete with each other for control and resources has not gone away. As the economic and environmental situation continues to deteriorate, the pressure for further military competition will grow. That inter-imperial rivalry is showing itself in the war in Ukraine and we are witnessing constant propaganda about the need to curtail China as a potential rival with the US. The potential for widespread war continues to threaten humanity.
Learning the lessons 
The movement that emerged on February 15, 2003 showed that a mass united front based on a simple basis of unity can bring millions into the streets. It is no small feat that the movement in Canada was able to stop our government from officially joinng the war. But it also showed that we need a bigger and broader opposition to war from the working class if we are to succeed in stopping further wars altogether. The march that sealed the deal and stopped Canada from joining the invasion was led by unions working with the peace movement in Quebec. The ruling class understands that workers have the power, not only to protest but to shut down capitalism altogether. It is this message that we need to heed as the war drums beat louder today. 
Watch the video below - Toronto anti-war actions January, February 2003
Embedded Video: 
peace now1 anti-war actions January, February 2003 Toronto

Featured Event



Visit our YouTube Channel for more videos: Our Youtube Channel
Visit our UStream Channel for live videos: Our Ustream Channel