BAGHDAD, Iraq – Dancing to drums and tambourines, tens of thousands of Iraqis — many of them armed with Kalashnikovs — demonstrated across the country on Saturday to support President Saddam Hussein and denounce the United States.
"Our swords are out of their sheaths, ready for battle," read one of hundreds of banners carried by marchers along Palestine Street, a broad Baghdad avenue.
Many hoisted giant pictures of Saddam and some burned American and Israeli flags in a demonstration presided over by Sameer Abdel-Aziz al-Nijma, a senior member of Saddam's ruling Baath Party.
"We are here ... to show the United States and Britain we are not frightened," said housewife Sameera Wahab, 61. "We want to show the world we are not afraid of their threats."
The demonstrations came on a day of anti-war protests around the world — and a day after the United States and Britain failed to persuade their allies on the U.N. Security Council to support their threatened war against Iraq.
"The voice of peace is louder than the threats of war," said al-Nijma. "But if they want war, we are ready for it."
U.N. weapons inspectors indicated Friday that Saddam has shown increasing cooperation with their mission to make sure Iraq has eliminated weapons of mass destruction. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said after meeting Pope John Paul II in Rome that Iraq will do "whatever is possible" to show the world Iraq has no such weapons.
Saddam met Saturday with papal envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who traveled to Baghdad this week with a message from the pope.
In a gesture to the United Nations, Saddam issued a decree just before the chief inspectors' presentation outlawing the production of importing of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the materials used to make them.
"All ministries should implement this decree and take whatever measures are necessary to punish people who do not adhere to it," the decree read.
Iraq's parliament had been expected to adopt similar legislation Friday, but Saddam — apparently wanting to stamp a key decision with his own name — issued the ban minutes before parliament met.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer reacted with skepticism. "If one would want to make believe and pretend that Iraq is a democracy that could pass meaningful laws, it would be 12 years late and 26,000 liters of anthrax short," he said.
Thousands of demonstrators marched along the Euphrates River near the ruins of Babylon, 60 miles south of Baghdad, some carrying traditional Iraqi swords.
The demonstration on Palestine Street appeared carefully scripted. Senior leaders of the Baath Party, led by Al-Nijm, greeted demonstrators from a stage built for the occasion while sharpshooters watched from surrounding rooftops.
Some demonstrators wore the olive green uniforms of the Baath Party. Women in black chadors held pictures of Saddam. Men in traditional Arab robes carried rifles.
"God has mercy on those who come to us," a man yelled into a megaphone.
Dozens of foreigners also staged a brief vigil for peace on a central Baghdad bridge over the Tigris River. Many waved rainbow flags, and some wore traditional Arab headdresses. Others wore black T-shirts reading "War is not the answer," while one French activist wore a Superman T-shirt.
Kenneth Webb, a 32-year-old graphic designer from San Francisco, said he intends to remain in Iraq if war breaks out "so it won't be just the body parts of the Iraqi people but of everyone — and that could make a difference."
"I should hope it matters," said Lisa Ndejura, 32, a student at the University of Quebec in Montreal. "If it doesn't, then the world is in much worse condition than I thought."
The demonstrations made no reference to Friday's events at the United Nations, but Baghdad was certain to take heart from the responses of China, France and Russia — three Security Council members with veto power — that inspections are making progress and should be given more time.
While speeches from France and Russia drew applause, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was met with silence as he pressed reluctant allies to threaten Iraq with force, saying they should not be taken in by "tricks that are being played on us."
"More inspections — I am sorry — are not the answer," Powell told the Security Council.
Iraq's 250-seat parliament unanimously adopted a strongly worded resolution Friday accusing America and Britain of scheming to control Iraq and steal its oil. Before voting on the resolution, lawmakers took turns to condemn America and pledge their loyalty to Saddam.
Iraq is barred from having weapons of mass destruction under U.N. resolutions adopted after the 1991 Gulf War. U.N. inspectors oversaw the destruction of the bulk of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons after the war and dismantled the country's program to develop nuclear weapons. Inspections resumed in November after a four-year break to search for remaining weapons or revived programs.
On Saturday, inspectors visited a factory that builds fuses for missiles, an ammunition depot north of Baghdad, a heavy engines factory on the outskirts of the capital, an agricultural college west of Baghdad and the Saddam Center for Technology at Baghdad University, according to Iraq's Information Ministry.