PARIS – From Washington to Rome and from London to Sydney, the peace signs, the antiwar slogans, and the chants that rallied hundreds of thousands of demonstrators against an invasion of Iraq last weekend recalled protests against the Vietnam War, or against US nuclear missiles in Europe 20 years ago.
But behind the increasingly vocal worldwide warnings about an invasion of Iraq lies not so much a resurgent peace movement as a fear America will try to depose Saddam Hussein alone. If Washington waits for United Nations approval for an attack, opinion polls in many countries show that American troops would actually enjoy considerable international public support.
Reflecting a widespread feeling throughout Europe, Franco Pavoncello, who teaches politics at John Cabot University in Rome, says: "Italians are not too interested in the peace movement as such, but they want things to be done within an international framework."
The sentiment is similar in Germany. "When you ask about an attack on Iraq by the Americans, you get two-thirds of Germans saying 'no,' " says Reinhardt Schlinkert, who heads the German polling group DIMAP. "But with a UN resolution, things look different. Then two-thirds say Germany should participate in some way or another."
Europeans and Americans are broadly in agreement, in fact. The most recent Gallup poll found that only 37 percent of Americans supported invading Iraq if Washington acted alone without a UN mandate. But 79 percent backed sending troops to overthrow Hussein if the effort involved other countries and had UN blessing.
Feelings are running highest in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has staked out a position closer to President Bush than any other European leader. And he is suffering for it in the polls: a survey conducted last week by Market & Opinion Research International found that 69 percent of Britons felt that Mr. Blair was too supportive of US policy toward Iraq.
Saturday's march in London drew more than 200,000 people in what organizers claimed was the largest antiwar rally ever held in Britain. "Blair has not won the argument about weapons of mass destruction or the need to go for an attack at this point," says Andrew Burgin, a leader of the Stop the War Coalition that organized the protest. "We feel that we represent UK public opinion."
Not entirely. Although only 18 percent of Britons support unilateral military action against Iraq without a new UN resolution, nearly three-quarters would change their minds if the UN approved an attack, according to an NOP Research Group poll released Sunday.
Opposition to a preemptive assault, either by the US alone or with British assistance, runs high — into Blair's cabinet — and broadly. The socially diverse ranks of Saturday's march were filled by Protestant priests and Islamic radicals, members of Parliament, trade-union leaders, students, and grandparents.
In Italy, where Premier Silvio Berlusconi's vocal support for the US drew harsh criticism from tens of thousands at a demonstration in Rome, the vociferous radical left "is not the only component of this front," says Sergio Romano, a prominent Italian political commentator. "Lots of other people who don't belong are part of it, because they fear this operation has not been sufficiently calculated. There is a lot of diffidence, fear, and hostility, and not much enthusiasm" for a US attack on Iraq.
"The idea of going with the US no matter what is not welcome here," agrees Professor Pavoncello. "Unless there is a clear-cut reason from the UN point of view, an attack would not fly."
The reasons for any attack are key to determining European attitudes, pollsters say. French fears of American hegemony are behind reservations about US policy, says Stéphane Rozès, who heads the CSA polling company. "The basis for French people's rejection of an attack is the feeling that the US would be launching this intervention unilaterally more for its own geo-strategic reasons than because Saddam Hussein is a threat."
The French have not taken to the street, Mr. Rozès suggests, because President Jacques Chirac has judged the public mood perfectly in opposing the US preference for a single UN resolution authorizing force, and insisting on a more cautious approach.
In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also judged the public mood accurately. It was his firm opposition to war in Iraq that won him last month's elections by a narrow margin. The German electorate's approval of Mr. Schröder's stand surprised many analysts, who had seen signs that Germans were growing readier to take decisive action abroad.
Now that he has been re-elected, however, Schröder is expected to seek to mend fences with Washington. With a UN resolution mandating the use of military force to compel Iraqi compliance with weapons inspectors, "he'll find a way" to support such action, and to carry the German public with him, Mr. Schlinkert predicts.
Everything hinges on the UN mandate, polls and political analysts say. "The Europeans played a role in modifying the US procedures," persuading Bush to seek a UN resolution rather than acting unilaterally, says Pavoncello, so Europeans are prepared to go along with what the UN Security Council decides.
"A UN vote would make things much easier," adds Romano.
Not that a UN vote would change things for the peace activists. "The UN is not much more than a fig leaf," complains Mr. Burgin. "The American and British governments are preparing for war, and they want war. It will be very difficult to stop it."www.csmonitor.com/2002/1002/p01s03-woeu.htmlE-mail this article