BOSTON — They have marched and chanted, hoping to use persuasion to prevent war. If that fails, though, activists are readying a more aggressive strategy of sit-ins and social disruptions, meant to restore peace in Iraq.
Protest sit-ins, especially at federal buildings, defense recruiting offices and military bases, have been mapped out for dozens of cities in the first day or two of any war, anti-war organizers say. Some also foresee widespread walkouts at schools and workplaces. A smaller number talk of blocking roads and bridges.
"Once war happens, there will be civil disobedience. It's bringing to a higher level what people have been doing," said coordinator Bal Pinguel at the American Friends Service Committee, an arm of the pacifist Quaker church.
The peace movement that has taken shape in the United States and around the world uses organizing technology — including the Internet and e-mail — that was not available the last time such large-scale domestic anti-war activism took place, in the Vietnam War era.
On Saturday, demonstrators gathered by the hundreds in cities across the nation, an increasingly common sight as the conflict looms closer. In Washington, police and organizers estimated between 4,000 and 10,000 demonstrators turned out in conjunction with International Women's Day; by late afternoon, 25 people were arrested on charges of crossing a police line in front of the White House.
In a counter effort, rallies to support President Bush and U.S. troops in a possible war also are being held across the country, and anger at the anti-war movement sometimes is apparent. Echoing a slogan from the 1960s, one placard at an Orlando, Fla., rally read: "America — Love It or Leave It."
Outside of Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., on Saturday, about 250 people rallied in support of American troops and the Bush administration, while 50 anti-war protesters gathered across the street, police Capt. Sonny Leeper said.
"We're starting to see more 'support the flag' people at these things," Leeper said. "They're starting to gain in numbers. . . . It seems like they're getting more organized."
Once spearheaded largely by leftist students, hippies and draft-card burners, the peace movement is now taking on more support from the mainstream: labor unions, war veterans, middle-aged professionals, and teenagers born years after the last draft. Almost 100,000 backers have donated to Peace Action, one of the biggest anti-war groups, over the past six months, coordinators say.
Still, despite its broader reach, it is unclear if the highly decentralized peace movement can marshal protests that can disrupt the war effort or win public sympathy. Some peace activists themselves harbor doubts that they can prevent a war against Iraq.
"There's a good chance we won't be able to stop it," said Kate Pearson, a Chicago organizer at Not in Our Name.
Peace activists have mounted mass rallies in major cities reminiscent of the Vietnam era, but they have also held smaller community vigils and discussion groups, and traditional contact-your-congressmen drives. In January and again in February, peace groups coordinated demonstrations in cities around the world. Hundreds of thousands of protesters unfurled signs and rallied in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, London, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, Cairo and other cities.
On Wednesday, thousands of students around the United States walked out of classes. Some Americans have taken quiet, personal actions too.
Anti-war members of the clergy have slipped into Iraq — without U.S. government permission mandated by American sanctions law — or visited European countries to lobby and pray with the local religious communities. Anti-war American doctors have gone to Iraq to evaluate the dangers that war poses for civilians there.
Picking up on domestic anxieties, some anti-war activists have argued that conflict might foster more terrorism that endangers American civilians on their own turf. "It's almost certainly going to guarantee not only more violence in the Middle East, but will almost guarantee another calamitous attack on U.S. soil," said Scott Lynch, a spokesman for Peace Action.
The White House has argued that disarming Iraq is part of its war on terrorism and will disrupt that government's links with terrorist groups.
The peace movement has also embraced a particularly influential contingent of supporters: veterans of the war with Iraq 12 years ago.
"Sept. 11 was nothing compared to the destruction that we visited on Iraq 12 years ago and even more so for what will probably happen this time," said Charles Sheehan-Miles, a decorated tank crewman in the 1991 Persian Gulf War who now wants peace.
President Bush has acknowledged the swelling protests, though they have not changed his mind.
After February's protests, he said he would not decide policy "based upon a focus group." At a White House news conference Thursday, he addressed protesters directly. "I recognize there are people who don't like war. I don't like war," Bush said. But he said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must be deposed to disarm Iraq and keep the United States safe, and that might only be accomplished with force.
For his part, Doug Dixon, an activist who has joined counter-demonstrations to back the drive toward war, shrugs off the peace movement as "pretty irrelevant." Dixon, a Houston-based member of the conservative grass-roots group Free Republic, believes the anti-war movement is encouraging Saddam Hussein.
"I'm certain he's watching," Dixon said.