ROME, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- More than a million marchers took to the streets of Rome Saturday to protest the prospect of a U.S.-led war against Iraq, the largest public protest in Italy in a decade and proof that a large and visible portion of the Italian population is opposed to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's support of Washington's hawkish stance toward Baghdad.
Estimates of the crowd size varied widely, with most television media and local law enforcement agencies using figures ranging from around 1 million to as many as 1.5 million. Organizers estimated the crowd at 2 million. But whatever number is used, it is far more than the 500,000-person figure police said they were expecting in the days leading up to the march.
On the four-lane city streets, predominantly young and vocal crowds stretched for nearly two miles, in many cases spilling into roadside parks and onto nearby roads and alleys.
Protesters carried colorful signs calling for an end to the U.S.-led aggressive stance toward Iraq, with one large red sign near the front reading "Stop the war on Iraq, no excuses." Further back in the crowd, a small group of students from the central Italian city of Bologna carried signs reading, "Who is like Hitler? Saddam is not like Hitler, Bush is like Hitler" -- a reference to President George W. Bush's charge that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein represented a threat similar to the one from Nazi leader Adolf Hitler leading up to World War II.
"It is easy to say that someone is against Hitler, but our point is that Saddam is not the Hitler of this situation," Marco Scarpiti, 29, one of the members of the group from Bologna, told United Press International. "Hitler ignored international accords, Hitler did what he wanted to do with no regard for anyone else. That is exactly what Bush is trying to do."
Scarpiti and most other protesters stressed that the protest was not against the United States, but in favor of peace.
"Nobody is saying that Saddam is a saint, but we are saying that war should be the absolute last option," 22-year-old Silvia Santi, another marcher, told UPI.
Two days before the march, the U.S. Embassy in Rome distributed information "strongly" warning U.S. citizens to stay away from the 6-mile protest route on the grounds that they could become targets for violence. But hundreds of Americans ignored the warning, and participated in the march or watched from the sidelines.
"I love my country, but I also know that my country is part of the world community," said John Miller, 45, who was in Rome on vacation from Ellicott City, Maryland. "I don't have all the information [about the threat represented by Iraq] that President Bush has, but I do feel that we should be working within the context of our allies."
There were no signs of violence along the protest route, with most protesters in good spirits in the mild and sunny weather. In addition to signs against war, they carried multi-color flags represented more than 400 political parties, trade unions, universities and other organizations. Media reported that around 130 members of Italy's parliament -- mostly from the Socialist, Communist and Green parties -- were among the protesters.
According to pollsters, around 70 percent of Italians are against Italian participation in any war against Iraq, and more than half oppose a U.S.-led attack even if it doesn't include Italy.
But despite that, Berlusconi has been one of Washington's strongest supporters in this area, already granting U.S. access to Italian military bases and air space and possibly even the use of Italian troops and technology.