by Marwaan Macan-Markar and Ranjit Devraj
(IPS) MUMBAI, India -- If Osama bin Laden's name acquired notoriety because of the Sept. 11 attacks, activists gathered here are determined to link another man with another date.
The man is President George W Bush, and the date is March 20, and the linkage is hardly shrouded in mystery.
After all, it was on this day last year that the Bush administration began an invasion of Iraq, saying it was essential to oust Saddam Hussein because of the country's alleged weapons of mass destruction, none of which have been found.
After three days of high-octane debate and demonstrations, the World Social Forum (WSF) in this Indian port city has evolved into a dress rehearsal for the anti-Bush and anti-war feelings scheduled to burst forth on the streets of the world's towns and cities around that date.
Up to 100,000 people attendied the Jan. 16-21 WSF, which was held for the fourth year and is aimed at protesting and changing the current political and economic order.
Speaker after speaker in the seminars since Saturday on war, imperialism and occupation have said that March 20 is an anniversary that cannot be ignored. Though the concrete plans are still being developed, many groups say they are planning protests to rival the February 2003 rallies against what was then the impending invasion.
Colourful banners with defiant messages against Washington's military ambitions and unilateral foreign policy added to this mood of protest that seems to be gathering momentum.
Typical of these new foot soldiers on a mission to wage peace is Gulbadan Azam, a 42-year-old activist from Pakistan. For two days, she joined other members of Aurat Foundation, a group that lobbies for women's rights, to convey a silent yet stark message to the throngs of people milling in and around the WSF venue in Goreagon district.
Azam stood on the sidelines of the many marches, at times walking with the crowds, carrying a large poster with a six-word message printed in bold text: 'When Bush Comes to Shove - Resist!' "The planned demonstrations on March 20 are very important for peace. We have to challenge the U.S. agenda in as many ways, through dance, art and powerful protests," said Azam, a mother of two.
The March 20 protests promise to be among the largest mobilizations of public groups and citizens since the February 2003 protests by anti-war campaigners that lasted over two days and were held in 600 cities and towns around the world.
The attendance at those rallies ranged from 2 million in Rome to 100,000 in New York.
It is a cause that excites a European politician, too. "I will be out there demonstrating in Paris, because we don't accept the way Bush is acting," said Daneille Auroi, a member of the Green Party in the European parliament. "His actions reveal that he hates the South."
A South African activist who took a lead role in the anti-war demonstrations in his country last year has set his sights on a larger outpouring of protests on March 20.
"We need to go beyond our efforts last year to oppose the imperial designs of George Bush," said Trevor Ngwane of the South African Anti-privatisation Forum. "Trade unions in arms - producing companies have to increase their pressure, too, by refusing to help in the war effort."
Even the groups who find the WSF too tame - they comprise the Mumbai Resistance 2004 - are discussing concrete ways to support the Iraqi resistance.
"The fact that the Iraqi people continue fighting even after the capture of Saddam Hussein reveals that the resistance there is not about the former president after all... it is about fighting U.S. imperialism," said Crispin Beltran, chairman of the International League of People's Struggles (ILPS) which is spearheading a global coalition against "imperialist globalisation".
U.S. activists at the WSF welcome the storm of protest. Not only can they identify with the rage against the Bush administration that is on display here, but they recognise it as a show of strength to boost anti-war sentiments at home.
"I have never experienced anything this big and I think it is good for those of us struggling for the peace, justice and social agenda," said Joseph Gerson, founder of the Union for Justice and Peace, a movement that has been in the vanguard of the U..S. anti-war movement.
"I am not surprised by the anti-Bush sentiments here," he added. "If anything, people have been very kind to Bush."
"But these people are our allies," he affirmed. "The plans underway for March 20 will add to the pressure Bush is under since Iraq was invaded. What we are seeing now in Iraq is the White House being forced to manipulate reality."
U.S.-born peace activist Peter Reil, who leads the group Stop The War Brigade (STWB), said the first thing would be to convince U.S soldiers in Iraq that "our rulers are not trying to free the world from tyranny ... all they want to do is replace one set of reactionary puppets with another".
Already the STWB has distributed pamphlets to U.S. soldiers in Iraq asking them to "refuse, resist and rebel" against their being used as "pawns". The pamphlets say, "It is time to unite with the oppressed of the world, not with the oppressors who force us to cut each other's throats."
Reil believes that a large percentage of U.S. troops in Iraq are already demoralised, citing a survey carried out three months ago by the 'Stars and Stripes' Army newspaper.
At least half of some 1,935 troops in the survey carried out by the paper, which is partly funded by the Pentagon, described troop morale as low. A third said their mission lacked clear definition and could see little value in prosecuting the war against Iraq.
Gerson adds that the huge anti-war rallies held in the United States and across the world before the invasion drove home a significant political message - that there is a legitimate right to criticise Bush and expose the "illegitimate" nature of the U.S.-led conquest.
"You cannot let this first anniversary of the war go unmarked," he said. "It will demonstrate that there is a moral and political force opposed to the government."
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