Liberation Lie

MADRID, SPAIN -- At Saturday's anti-war rally here -- with chants of "No a la Guerra!" filling the city's central square, and film director Pedro Almodovar and actress Leonor Watling reading an anti-war manifesto -- air-raid sirens began to blare from loudspeakers. In response, the crowd of a million or more sank to its knees in a massive wave, young and old covering their heads as if taking shelter while the sounds of simulated explosions filled the air.

It was a symbolic moment of solidarity with the people of Iraq by the Spanish protesters, who, perhaps more than many others demonstrating across Europe and around the world this past weekend, have themselves known oppression and dictatorship -- and all too recently.

Yet despite that, or maybe because of it, the overwhelming sentiment at Saturday's rally was that the coming war is not about the liberation of the Iraqi people but rather about U.S. interests: George W. Bush and his administration, Spanish protesters argued, are going to war in Iraq in a cynical bid to take control of Iraq's oil reserves, the second largest in the world (after Saudi Arabia's).

"Bush wants to go into Iraq to get the oil. Everybody knows that he doesn't want to help the people there," said Virgilio Salcedo, a 29-year old computer programmer who was attending the rally with his parents.

Millions of people turned out Saturday in more than a dozen cities across Spain to protest U.S. war plans. Unlike the caricature of antiwar protesters in the United States as radical hippies, the demonstrators came from every segment of the population: Students, senior citizens, laborers, artists and suburban families were all well-represented.

That more than 80 percent of the Spanish public opposes going to war has not dissuaded Spain's center-right prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, from being one of Bush's strongest supporters. Aznar was one of the architects of a controversial letter calling on Europeans to support the war to topple Saddam Hussein. The letter, published earlier this month in The Wall Street Journal, was also signed by Britain's Tony Blair and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. It was intended to counter the powerful opposition to the war from France and Germany.

Some at the rally speculated that Aznar had cut a deal with the Bush administration in exchange for access to Iraqi oil, while others said it was to gain U.S. support for the Spanish push for control of Gibraltar, the British-controlled island off the tip of Spain.

But the truth behind Aznar's motivation may lie in the more mundane world of geopolitical strategy. Up until now, Germany and France have dominated the European Union. For Spain, Britain and Italy to be owed a major favor by the European Union's largest trading partner will undoubtedly give those countries much-needed political clout.

It is still unclear whether the anti-war stance of Jose Luis Zapatero Rodriguez -- the leader of the Socialist Party and Aznar's main rival -- will make a difference in next year's elections. (The Socialists are currently running slightly ahead of the Popular Party in the polls since Aznar declared his support for the war.)

Either way, the crowd Saturday did not put much faith in the motivations of politicians from any country. Neither Bush nor Aznar nor U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has made a convincing case that invading Iraq will make the world safe from terrorism, said Rubin Sindo, a 35-year-old economist who lives in the Madrid suburbs. Sindo said that, while he has no doubt Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator, the United States has "waited 12 years and I don't understand why [it should attack] now."

Given that people here have lived with Basque terrorism for decades, it is telling that Spain's public is skeptical of the Bush administration's use of terrorism as a rationale for attacking Iraq. Rosaldina Arias, a 53-year-old restaurant owner who told me her sister died in the World Trade Center attacks, said she has little faith in Bush's integrity. "It is all business. They want petroleum; they want to bring U.S. imperialism," she said.

The number of people that braved the near-freezing weather in Madrid on Saturday evening far exceeded expectations. The government estimated the turnout at 600,000, while organizers put it at more than 2 million. Seasoned media observers placed the real number somewhere in between, noting it was among the city's largest rallies in decades. A demonstration in Barcelona the same day had a similar showing, in Seville more than 100,000 turned out and four other cities had crowds of more than 50,000.

But despite the impressive numbers, protesters have adopted something of a fatalistic attitude about the war. Like many at the Madrid rally, 26-year-old Lucia Miranda doubted that even such a large turnout would affect the decisions of the warriors in Washington, D.C. "I think we don't have a chance to stop the war," she said. "But we have to try anyway."

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