ROME, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- More than 1.5 million Italians took to the streets of dozens of cities Saturday afternoon and evening to protest possible U.S. military action against Iraq -- a surprise show of discord that could be fervent enough for the Italian government to re-think its support of Washington.
The larger-than-expected protests took place without violence, despite speculation from some fronts that the gatherings could become dangerous, especially to U.S. citizens. On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Rome circulated a warning to citizens residing in or visiting Italy to stay away from the demonstrations because of fears that they could become targets for violence.
But even though the protests were peaceful, demonstrators made it clear that they opposed U.S. action against Baghdad. The stance is significant because up to this point, Rome and London have been President George W. Bush's strongest allies in Europe.
Most European leaders -- most vocally France's Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder of Germany -- have called on diplomatic means to diffuse tensions between the United States and Iraq.
"For several weeks, Italians have been saying that they are opposed to action against Iraq, but this is the first time they have put those words into action," Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni, told United Press International. "The site of thousands of Italians on the streets protesting against the potential war in Iraq has to be a sobering sight for government officials who will need public support for other issues."
Government officials were not available for comment on their stance on U.S.-Iraq relations on Saturday, but local television drew the same conclusion as Rossi.
"If the government can ignore this ... it can ignore anything," said one on-the-scene journalist for the network La 7 in Milan. "On this day, the Italian people have spoken ... and they say they are against support for the American position."
Opinion polls support that view, with a week-old survey from Opinioni showing that more than two out of every three Italians opposed any armed conflict over Iraq, and nearly four out of five Italians opposed to Italian participation in such action unless it was as part of a United Nations-sponsored force.
Most of the anti-war demonstrations took place on Saturday morning, with the biggest of those in Milan, drawing a crowd that police estimated at between 60,000 to 100,000 people.
Signs in the crowd showed Bush's head on the body of a hawk -- a reference to the president's hawkish stance toward Iraq's Saddam Hussein -- and others that showed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and British leader Tony Blair as Bush's pets, referring to their support of U.S. policies. Other large morning rallies took place in Bologna, Florence, Naples and Palermo.
But the day's biggest march was held in the evening in Rome, where police said as many as 200,000 people gathered in protest.
"Our point is that we cannot support the United States's plan to kill innocent Iraqis in order to win the upcoming (Congressional) elections," Marco Filiberti, 38, a protester who came to Rome with six friends from the nearby city of Latina, told UPI.
Claudia Bacigalupo, 24, a teacher from Rome, said she hoped the day's unexpectedly large rallies would convince the government to backtrack on its support of Washington.
"We cannot control what the United States does, but we can tell them that if they want to march into Iraq they will have to do so without the support of the Italian military," Bacigalupo said.
Whether that will be the case or not is unclear. In the past, Berlusconi has paid only limited attention to public opinion -- which, combined his eagerness to support Washington on a variety of issues -- might make a change of plans unlikely. But pollsters say that because of the support the government will need to address an array of domestic issues, the public's view on Iraq could create a degree of doubt about the course the prime minister has chosen.
"Over the coming months, the government will try to pass a so-far unpopular budget, revisit controversial labor reform legislation and start to tackle painful pension reforms," Rossi, the pollster, said. "With the economy weakening, the government may have to pick its most important battles ... (and) what we don't know is whether Iraq is one of them."
The United States has taken an aggressive stance against Iraq -- including calls for Hussein's government to be toppled -- on fears that the Iraqi leader is building an arsenal of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.