A look back at the history-making mobilization against the Iraq War that turned ordinary people into a “second superpower” – one we badly need today.
Twenty years ago – on February 15, 2003 – the world said no to war. People rose up in almost 800 cities around the world in an unprecedented movement for peace.
The world stood on the precipice of war. U.S. and U.K. warplanes and warships – filled with soldiers and sailors and armed with the most powerful weapons ever used in conventional warfare – were streaming towards the Middle East, aimed at Iraq.
Antiwar mobilizations had been underway for more than a year as the threat of war against Iraq took hold in Washington, even as the war in Afghanistan had barely begun.
Opposition to the war in Afghanistan was difficult following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even though none of the hijackers were Afghans and none lived in Afghanistan, most Americans saw the war as a legitimate response – a view that would change over the next two decades, with the vast majority saying the war wasn’t worth fighting when American troops were withdrawn in 2021.
But Iraq was different from the beginning. There was always opposition. And as the activist movement grew, its grounding in a sympathetic public expanded too. By the time February 15, 2003 came around – a year and five months after the 9/11 attacks – condemnation of the looming war was broad and fierce.
Plans for February 15 had been international from the beginning, starting with a call to mobilize against the war issued at the European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002. With just a few weeks of organizing, the first internet-based global protest erupted.
On that day, beginning early in the morning, demonstrators filled the streets of capital cities and tiny villages around the world. The protests followed the sun, from Australia and New Zealand and the small Pacific islands, through the snowy steppes of North Asia and down across Southeast Asia and the South Asian peninsula, across Europe and down to the southern tip of Africa, then jumping the pond first to Latin America and then finally, last of all, to the United States.
Across the globe, the call came in scores of languages: “The world says no to war!” and “Not in our name!” echoed from millions of voices. The Guinness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out that day – the largest protest in the history of the world. The great British labor and peace activist, former MP Tony Benn, described it to the million Londoners in the streets that day as “the first global demonstration, and its first cause is to prevent a war against Iraq.”