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Britons' Iraq anguish falls on deaf ears

Although polls continue to show a majority want troops to withdraw, the stop-the-war movement has struggled to maintain momentum.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2006 20:26 IST

As a parent of a soldier fighting in Iraq, Peter Brierley was proud of his son and regularly confronted anyone who questioned Britain's reason for going to war.

"People used to say 'this war isn't right' but I just couldn't believe the government would send people to their death unless they had a good reason," he said.

And then his son was killed.

Brierley is one of the families who have lost children or loved ones in Iraq. He is also one of a growing number of them to speak out against the war.

"At the beginning I supported it -- I believed they would find weapons of mass destruction (Britain's main reason for going to war).

"Now I've changed ... to being totally against."

The 100th UK soldier was killed by an explosion in southern Iraq on Tuesday.

Although polls continue to show a majority of Britons want troops to withdraw from Iraq, the stop-the-war movement has struggled to maintain momentum.

In March 2003, over one million people took to the streets of London to protest against the impending invasion. Since then, the anti-war focus has turned to calling for the troops to be brought home. But the protest numbers are dwindling.

A march through central London last September attracted just 10,000 people -- far fewer than the 100,000 the organisers had hoped to attract.

Brierley, whose son Shaun died in 2003, said the lack of weapons of mass destruction and the argument surrounding the government and its legal case for war had forced him to rethink his views.

For Susan Smith, it was an easier choice. She had never backed the war and was appalled to learn from her son that he did not have adequate supplies and equipment.

He died in July 2005.

"He didn't say a lot (to us) when he was in Iraq but when he came home for a break he talked a bit," Smith said. "He said they were exhausted because they were so short staffed.

"The thing that stuck in my mind was he said: 'we train the Iraqi police during the day and they kill us at night.'"

Brierley and Smith are part of the Military Families Against the War group who have provided some of the most moving argument against the conflict.

Sheehan Campaign

In the United States, Cindy Sheehan became a central figure for the growing anti-war movement after her soldier son's death in April 2004. The United States passed the 2,000th US military death in Iraq last October.

Mori pollster Robert Worcester said the British anti-war movement had lost its impact partly because the public doubted whether it would make any difference.

"There is a great deal of latent hostility to the war but it's not active, presumably because the public thinks there is very little that would happen as a result," he said.

"The government knew that the public were opposed to it when they went into it and they did it in the face of public opinion, counting on it being supine."

Worcester said the 2006 US midterm elections and the fact President George W Bush would stand down after this presidential term had focused minds in America.

The question of withdrawing British troops is also a lot more complicated than not sending them in the first place and many Britons feel that withdrawing them would leave Iraq in chaos and possibly civil war.

"I think most people who are opposed to the war have more or less given up," professor Anthony King of Essex University said. "The war itself was fought and won, the aftermath is messy but even people who opposed the war in many cases think British troops should stay there."

In the face of dwindling interest, the Stop the War Coalition have turned to alternative forms of protest such as concerts and peace conferences but Smith's attitude shows the problem they face.

"I don't think the government will be pressured into doing anything in Iraq that they don't want to," she said. "I think they're basically arrogant."

First Published: Jan 31, 2006 20:26 IST