Last weekend, more than 6 million people demonstrated worldwide, pleading for peace and protesting U.S. plans to wage war against Iraq. The demonstrations, the largest since the Vietnam War, are proof that U.S. President George W. Bush has not convinced the world that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses a global threat. Mr. Bush and those who believe that Iraq is a danger must not succumb to anger and arrogance and dismiss the protesters. Rather, they must redouble their efforts to win them over to their cause. A war that is not seen as legitimate would be as great a danger to the world as ignoring the Iraqi threat.

Antiwar protesters took to the streets in more than 600 towns and cities, from Ankara to Canberra. In France, it was estimated that at least 300,000 people protested across the country. In Berlin, half a million people joined the largest protest in Germany since the end of World War II. Other demonstrations occurred in Moscow and Jakarta. In Japan, thousands of protesters rallied and demonstrated in Tokyo and other major cities.

Some of the biggest rallies occurred in countries that have backed the U.S. hard line against Iraq. Two million people joined Spanish protests; about a million people marched through the streets of Rome — a rebuke to the U.S. and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has supported Mr. Bush. Hundreds of thousands protested in Australia and New Zealand, and it is estimated that at least half a million people demonstrated in London, in addition to smaller protests elsewhere in Britain.

In the United States, 100,000 people rallied to the cause in New York City — the largest U.S. antiwar protests since the prospect of war against Iraq become real. Smaller protests took place in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Philadelphia and other cities. American sentiment is typical of that worldwide: While a majority of Americans feel that Iraq constitutes a threat to national security, they still want the U.S. to proceed with U.N. support. They do not want the U.S. to go it alone.

No single cause unites the protesters. Some oppose war in general, some oppose war against Iraq. Some agree that Baghdad is a threat, but they are not convinced that war will eliminate it. Domestic politics — challenging leaders who have allied with the U.S. — drives some into the streets. Anti-Americanism is one motivation, fear of becoming the target of terrorists is another.

No matter what the cause, the demonstrations have sent a signal to the U.S. and its chief supporter, the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that more work must be done to win international support for action against Baghdad. That message was hammered home last week at the U.N. Security Council when virtually all the other members — including veto-holding states France, Russia and China — said the weapons inspections should continue and that any military action would have to be authorized by another U.N. vote. They were backed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has urged Baghdad to cooperate with the inspectors and maintains that war is not inevitable.

That optimism was fueled by a report by weapons inspectors that noted increasing cooperation by Iraq. Mr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Mr. Hans Blix, the head of the U.N. inspection teams, told the Security Council that Baghdad was allowing surveillance flights, had provided new documents and was investigating old arms stockpiles. The inspectors, they said, “were making progress even without 100 percent Iraqi cooperation.”

The message has been received in Washington and London. The U.S. and Britain are reportedly working on a new, softer resolution that would demand action by the U.N. without explicitly calling for war. More important, the two governments are now ready to take more time to persuade other nations of the need for action. The size and scale of last week’s protests signaled that there is considerably more work that needs to be done on this front.

The U.N. has demanded that Iraq disarm or face serious consequences. The rush to war has diverted attention from where it belongs — on what Iraq is doing. Instead, the dispute within the Security Council has allowed the focus of the controversy to shift from Iraq’s behavior to that of Washington. In a sense, this may be a victory for Mr. Hussein. Even if it is, however, it need not be permanent. The American people understand the stakes and how to proceed; their leaders should listen.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.