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Signs of all stripes to fill streets

Peace rallies are planned in St. Petersburg, Tampa and a dozen other Florida cities Saturday as part of a worldwide day of protests billed as a last chance to stop a war with Iraq.

With war appearing imminent, the public remains divided. Although local protests are steadily getting bigger and louder, the latest polls indicate a growing number of Americans would support an invasion of Iraq, even without United Nations approval.

"The closer to war we get, the stronger people's opinions are," said St. Petersburg peace protester Lisa McGill, 29. "We're coming down to it. Everybody knows there's not much time left."

Saturday's protests in the Tampa Bay area will coincide with peace marches around the globe _ especially one in Washington, where tens of thousands of people are expected to march through the streets around the White House. Pro-troops demonstrations also are planned.

The largest local rally likely will be in Tampa at the Dale Mabry gate of MacDill Air Force Base from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Organizers expect a big turnout, but no one really knows how many people will show up.

A lineup of at least 16 speakers will include peace activists ranging from local college students to a 78-year-old Sun City Center resident, as well as representatives of various civil rights and social justice groups.

A smaller contingent of counterdemonstrators _ people protesting the protesters _ also is expected. Uniformed and plain clothes police will be on hand to maintain order.

"We're all for freedom of speech as long as it's done peacefully," said Tampa police spokeswoman Katie Hughes.

Simultaneously, at 1 p.m. Saturday in Manatee County, hundreds of peace marchers are expected to walk back and forth across the Green Bridge over the Manatee River from Bradenton to Palmetto.

A third rally will be from 6 to 8 p.m. outside BayWalk, the busy entertainment and retail complex in downtown St. Petersburg. Over the past six weeks, a regular Saturday evening peace vigil there has grown from 35 protesters to 160. This weekend's vigil is expected to be smaller because many participants are going to the MacDill rally.

The protesters' views can be summed up by organizer Chris Ernesto, 39, of St. Petersburg: "Iraq is not threatening us, and they've already paid the price for invading Kuwait. Enough is enough."

BayWalk doesn't endorse the demonstrators but acknowledges they have the right to line the public sidewalks along Second Avenue N. Waving signs and chanting, they get mixed reactions from passersby, illustrating the current split in public opinion.

People on the other side of this issue are starting to show their colors as well. Around the country, a number of "rallies for America" have been held by people showing their support for U.S. troops.

A pro-troops rally will be held at noon Saturday in Citrus County, outside the historic courthouse in Inverness.

Also, dueling antiwar and pro-troops rallies are held about noon every Saturday in Hernando County, on opposite sides of U.S. 19 at State Road 50 in Weeki Wachee.

U.S. antiwar groups, loosely organized via the Internet, view this weekend as possibly their last chance to influence the Bush administration and public opinion before war breaks out.

More Americans are growing impatient with the United Nations' handling of the Iraq crisis, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, released this week.

Overall, Americans support using military force to remove Saddam Hussein by 66 percent to 30 percent, although many war supporters would prefer to have U.N. approval. But a growing number _ 55 percent _ would now support an invasion even if the U.N. Security Council won't okay it.

However, one in two Americans are willing to wait. About 52 percent still want to give weapons inspectors more time in Iraq, although that number has dropped from 62 percent two weeks ago.

As the public sends mixed signals, Tampa Bay's peace protesters remain convinced that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would be an immoral bloodbath.

"A pre-emptive strike is illegal. Collateral damage is murder, and there's going to be a lot of it," said Clearwater peace protester Dan Brooks, 32, who will march in Washington on Saturday. "We haven't been shown enough proof there's a clear and present danger to the United States."

_ Mike Brassfield can be reached at (727) 893-8455 or

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