“ALL OUT for the 19 March demonstration,” was the message of a successful fourth annual conference held by the Stop the War Coalition on Saturday of last week. Coalition president Tony Benn opened the 400-strong delegate conference. “We must make the war the central issue in the coming general election,” he said.
“The occupation of Iraq remains the key. And alongside it we are hearing the same lies that were used about Iraq now being used about Iran. Ours is the most tremendous peace movement I’ve seen in my lifetime. With the threat of further wars, we cannot stop now, but must rededicate ourselves to building the movement and winning majority support across the country.”
Throughout the day speakers from local Stop the War groups reported on a wave of anti-war rallies that have taken place over the last few weeks. In many areas, these events have been as big as those during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq two years ago.
Over 850 people turned up to a rally in Bristol two weeks ago. And as in other towns and cities, that enthusiaism is translating into large numbers of coaches being booked for 19 March.
“Local activities are attracting support too,” said Lesley, a delegate from Yeovil in south west England. “I was rung up by the Western Gazette about a protest we were organising at Yeovilton airbase.
“The journalist was very interested when I told him about the launch of the Military Families Against the War campaign and he wants to do a follow up.”
The session on the unprecedented campaign by the military families was a highpoint of the conference. It showed how opposition to the war and occupation has reached wider layers of people over the past year.
George Solomou, a Territorial Army soldier who has refused to serve in Iraq, told the conference, “The Vietnam War ended when soldiers refused to fight in it any longer. This war is Vietnam on speed and with oil.
“It took two years to prick my conscience and to go from being opposed to the war to doing something about it. That happened because of you in the anti-war movement.
“We now need to be standing outside recruiting stations giving people the information in the Military Families Against the War leaflet. Large numbers of people in the army are against this war.
“But information is being withheld from them. I only found out last week that the government is in breach of United Nations conventions in not publicising the regulations advising soldiers about their right to conscientious objection.”
Army top brass have admitted that they face a recruitment crisis in Scotland, the north east of England, and in Wales.
“I’m pleased we are having that effect,” said Rose Gentle, whose son, Gordon, was killed in Iraq last year, and who helped set up the military families campaign. “I am now getting e-mails from all over the place from families who want to get involved in the campaign.
“The demonstration on 19 March is going to be really important in showing how many people oppose this war, which is still going on. My advice is don’t back down to the army or to the government. Come out and oppose what is wrong.”
Reg Keys is the father of one of the six military police who were killed near Basra, southern Iraq, two years ago. He told the conference about one of the final telephone conversations he had with his son, Tom.
“He said, ‘Dad, I don’t know what we are doing here. These people are poor, they have nothing and we are not helping.’
“Tom and two other soldiers had to dig out a woman and her three children after an action by another unit. Her husband was distraught. He went into his house, got his Kalashnikov and said, ‘I’m going north to Fallujah to kill Americans.’ So what do I call him? A terrorist? I think of him as a dehumanised human being. And who did that? It was Bush, Blair and this war. I hold Tony Blair as guilty as the Iraqis who killed my son for his death. I like to think that they did not kill Tom, but killed what he represented.”
Andrew Burgin from the Stop the War Coalition liaises with the military families campaign. He read out a letter from an army wife on a base in Germany. She described how her husband was to be ordered off to Iraq, but did not want to go and fight an “obscene” war.
She continued, “Last night one of my neighbours’ husband was threatening to kill himself,” rather than be sent to Iraq. “I want to be part of something to contribute positively to the people of Iraq,” she concluded.
In the discussion that followed Lizi Allnatt from Stop the War in Exeter reported how her local group had leafleted a Territorial Army centre.
“We were nervous and so we decided to send all women, but the response was like a coffee morning,” she said. “Loads of people really wanted to talk and take the leaflets. One man dropped off his son and then reversed back to come and talk to us. He wasn’t totally convinced, but he said he would come to a meeting that Rose Gentle was to speak at.”
The whole session underlined just how wide the potential support is for the anti-war movement in the run-up to 19 March and the general election.