Venezuela's Chavez calls for end to war in Iraq

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged activists to launch a "world offensive" against capitalism and U.S. imperialism as the World Social Forum drew to a close Sunday. As the forum's main organizers met with the Venezuelan leader to present brief conclusions on the six-day event, Chavez urged them to find ways to spread their ideas more powerfully.

"It's essential to elaborate strategies of power toward a world offensive," Chavez said in a two-hour speech that dominated a meeting ranging from Venezuela's defense strategy to denunciations of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

"Down with the U.S. empire!" Chavez said earlier Sunday during his weekly TV and radio address to which some activists had been invited. "Enough already with the imperialist aggression!" he said, listing countries from Panama to Iraq where the U.S. military has intervened. "In this century, we have to bury the empire, and may there never again be empires in the world."

He spoke with his arms wrapped around the shoulders of visiting American peace activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and Elma Beatriz Rosado, the widow of slain Puerto Rican nationalist Filiberto Ojeda Rios. All three joined in condemning U.S. President George W. Bush's government.

Chavez said Sheehan told him during a meeting Saturday that during Holy Week in April, "she is going to put up her tent again in front of Mr. Danger's ranch," in a reference to President Bush's Texas ranch. Sheehan gained international notoriety last year when she set up a protest camp near the ranch.

"She invited me to put up a tent. Maybe I'll put up my tent also," Chavez said to applause during his program, "Hello President," which ran for five hours. He said Sheehan has helped start "a revolution there in the very heart of the United States" against the war.

Sheehan, who said Saturday she is considering running against U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to protest her stance on Iraq, thanked Chavez for "supporting life and peace."

She noted that singer and activist Harry Belafonte recently called Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world," and said, "I agree with him. George Bush is responsible for killing tens of thousands of innocent people." Rosado held back tears as she stood at Chavez's side and said, "I accuse the United States government of murdering Filiberto."

The 72-year-old militant independence activist was killed in a September FBI raid on a Puerto Rican farmhouse where he was living in hiding while wanted for the 1983 robbery of US$7.2 million (Ђ5.9 million) from a Wells Fargo armored truck depot in West Hartford, Connecticut, funds intended for the independence cause.

"They murdered him," Chavez said. "Viva Filiberto! ... Let's follow his example."

Chavez also said his government would help protest the war in Iraq by supporting a drive to gather petitions to be delivered to the U.S. Embassy.

Chavez, a close ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro, has clashed repeatedly with Washington, accusing Bush of plotting to overthrow him. U.S. officials have strongly denied that, but have increasingly accused Chavez of accumulating power and threatening democracy. Chavez, who before the war in Iraq had friendly relations with Saddam Hussein, argues the U.S. poses the greatest threat to democracy. Nevertheless, the United States remains the No. 1 buyer of Venezuelan oil, bringing in billions of dollars (euros) that helps fund Chavez's many social programs for the poor.

The Venezuelan leader appeared to enjoy playing host to the annual World Social Forum, which is held each year to counter the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Organizers said this year's social forum drew more than 70,000 participants. "Caracas in the past several days has turned into the world's social capital," he said. "It has been extraordinarily successful," reports the AP. I.L.

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