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Rebuilding Iraq

Antiwar activists aren't backing down

Iraq war remains divisive at home

By Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff, 4/17/03

    Rebuilding Iraq

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 TODAY'S GLOBE

 PHOTO GALLERIES

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 MESSAGE BOARDS

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 VIEWS ON WAR

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 TEXT

Speeches, reports, documents

NEWTON -- Now that Saddam Hussein's government has crumbled -- with fewer Americans dead than are killed on US highways over a typical Labor Day weekend -- much of America is rejoicing. But that did not stop some 40 antiwar protesters from holding their weekly vigil in Newton Centre, a ritual they began nine months ago.

To the protesters who gathered last week, little had changed. To several derisive passersby, everything had.

"Give it up!" yelled a man standing in the street and glaring. "Your hero, Saddam, is all done."

A businessman walked by and, with a snicker, held up an open newspaper featuring photographs of Iraqis exulting and bestowing flowers on US Marines. He dismissed the demonstrators as "a few misfits," his words dripping with contempt.

But many antiwar activists across Boston's western suburbs, where peace vigils have sprouted like dandelions at town commons and busy intersections in recent months, argue that America's rout of Iraqi fighters and the vanquishing of Hussein's regime hardly proves that they were wrong. The conquest of Iraq in a mere three weeks, they said, is no cause for cheering.

"There was never any question that the most powerful killing machine in the history of the world, namely the American military establishment, would be successful in overcoming Saddam Hussein's paltry defensive forces," said Robert M. Sarly, a senior vice president for Salomon Smith Barney Inc. who participated in a vigil in Wellesley last Friday evening. The problem, he said, is "we've taken the law into our own hands and are acting like an imperial power."

If anything, several activists said, they are more alarmed than ever. They fear that the Bush administration's pledge to take preemptive action against countries that might threaten the United States could lead to military adventures elsewhere, such as in Syria. They believe that President Bush antagonized many of America's allies, trivialized the United Nations, and exacerbated the risk of terrorism. And they lament that the war has killed an untold number of Iraqi civilians.

"We're in the wrong. We're pigs, and I'm ashamed for my country," said Erna Rosenberg, 91, a self-described "old-time lefty" from Newton.

To be sure, some of the antiwar rhetoric now contains more than a hint of defensiveness. Rosenberg, for example, sat in a lawn chair at the rally and held a sign that read "Winning Doesn't Make It Right."

Several activists are talking about revamping their message in the coming months as they channel some of their grass-roots energy into political campaigns aimed at unseating Bush in 2004. Many are enthusiastic about the fledgling campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the most outspoken critic of the war among Democratic presidential candidates.

But with looting and violence plaguing Iraqi cities, and the country's health system on the verge of collapse, most activists interviewed said they will continue to hold rallies and denounce the Bush administration for the war.

About 50 members of Newton Dialogues on Peace and War, the grass-roots group behind the vigils at Beacon and Centre streets, met for two hours Sunday morning at the Eliot Church of Newton and agreed to continue staging protests on Thursday evenings. They also are exploring the possibility of starting a local cable talk show about issues of war and peace.

"There's definitely a feeling that the community needs to express their continuing dissatisfaction with the direction that [the United States] is going in," said Linda Nathanson, 59, a private consultant who advises high school students seeking admission to college. "It feels like our country has been hijacked, and its values have been hijacked."

But her group decided to broaden its message. Some of the antiwar picket signs will soon give way to placards assailing the Bush administration for diverting attention from the struggling economy and other longstanding problems, such as the difficulty of finding affordable health care, she said.

Like other activists, Chris Gruener, a 54-year-old psycho therapist from Newton, acknowledged that Hussein was a dictator whose ouster was welcomed by much of the world, including Iraqis who suffered under his rule.

"The Iraqi people have been liberated, and God bless them," he said. "I'm glad the rape rooms and torture houses have come to an end. But a good thing has happened for the wrong reason."

As he saw it, the Bush administration's real goal was to extend America's influence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and toppling Hussein's repressive regime was merely "coincidental." If the Bush administration really cared about ousting dictatorships, he said, it would have invaded other countries before Iraq, such as Burma.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Monday found that three-fourths of Americans endorsed Bush's decision to take military action against Iraq, a substantial increase from the numbers in January. Some 63 percent agreed with the preemptive attack policy. And for the first time in nearly a year, most Americans said the nation is headed in the right direction.

Jim Casteris, a Korean War veteran who is a regular at the Newton vigils, was among several activists who said they were saddened by such reactions to the war but hardly surprised or swayed by them.

"I just cannot accept that we did something good here," he said. "We have destroyed a country. . . . I was against this then, I'm against it now."



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