massive antiwar rally in australia

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    MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- At least 150,000 people packed streets in Melbourne on Friday to protest against the looming war with Iraq and Australia's possible involvement in a U.S.-led assault.

    Police estimated 150,000 people participated, while organizers put the crowd at 200,000, making it the biggest peace protest in the country since marches 30 years ago against the Vietnam War in which Australian troops fought alongside U.S. forces.

    Friday's march was the first in a series of demonstrations planned in Australia in the coming days. Similar peace rallies were scheduled across the world over the weekend.

    Greens Senator Bob Brown said the size of the crowd showed Prime Minister John Howard did not have a mandate to take Australia to war against Iraq.

    "This is a huge statement by the people of Melbourne, and the people of Australia to John Howard: that he's gone the wrong way and should turn around," Brown told the crowd. "The people of Australia don't see this as our war."

    Howard is a staunch supporter of U.S. President George W. Bush's tough line against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

    Howard has already committed 2,000 military personnel to the Persian Gulf to prepare for conflict if fighting breaks out. But he has said he has not yet decided whether Australian troops would actually join a U.S. attack.

    Howard met Bush and discussed the Iraq crisis in Washington this week. He later met British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London.

    On Friday, he was in Jakarta to hold talks with Megawati Sukarnoputri, the president of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, where antiwar feelings are also rising.

    The Melbourne rally started with the eerie sound of mock air raid sirens symbolizing air attacks on Baghdad.

    Protesters gathered outside the State Library waving placards with slogans including: "No War for Oil" and "Howard's End," a reference to the potentially damaging political fallout for Howard of joining a U.S.-led strike on Iraq despite widespread public opposition to any Australian involvement without a U.N. mandate.

    "It is an amazing scene here with you today in a show of solidarity to send a strong message to Prime Minister Howard and the Australian government that Australians don't want war," Democrat Sen. Natasha Stott Despoja told the huge crowd.

    The protest, organized by student groups, unions and churches, was to end later Friday with a music concert in central Melbourne.

    There were no reports of trouble in the large crowd.

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