Battle Against Baathist Relics Divides Baghdad

Critics of demolitions claim political motive behind drive to tear down Saddam Hussein-era monuments.

Battle Against Baathist Relics Divides Baghdad

Critics of demolitions claim political motive behind drive to tear down Saddam Hussein-era monuments.

Friday, 12 February, 2010
The demolition of an iconic Baghdad monument built by Saddam Hussein has provoked a fierce debate over the fate of other structures erected by the deposed leader.

The Meeting, an abstract sculpture featuring two intertwined swirls of concrete, was torn down from its position overlooking a busy intersection in the capital’s affluent Mansour district.

Another monument, the Arch of Victory, a vast metal sculpture of two interlocking swords held aloft by giant hands, was also reportedly marked for demolition by a committee appointed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Malik.

In an interview with IWPR on February 7, Ali al-Mosawi, an aide to the prime minister, said the committee was acting under a law aimed at eradicating the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.

The following day, however, Mosawi told IWPR that Maliki had ordered a stop to all the demolition work because his instructions had been “misunderstood”. For now, the Arch of Victory remains standing inside the International Zone, an area inaccessible to the public.

Critics of the demolition of the monument at Mansour say the motive was transparent.

They say its timing – four weeks before nationwide parliamentary elections – shows it to be a crude political ploy to rally the support of the Shia Arab majority, whose community was marginalised by Saddam, a Sunni Arab.

The de-Baathification law that reportedly backed up the demolition order was also recently used to bar some 500 candidates from taking part in the elections in March.

The ban, which is still being contested in Baghdad, has provoked fury among Sunni leaders who see it as an attempt by the Shia-dominated government to sideline its rivals. American officials have also voiced alarm at the decision to bar candidates, apparently concerned that it could stoke sectarian tensions and undermine the March 7 poll.

Court appeals to overturn the ban, meanwhile, have angered Shia officials seeking to eradicate Baathist influence in Iraq.

Nuraldin al-Hayali, a Sunni member of parliament from one of many coalitions running against Maliki’s list, said any threat to tear down Saddam-era monuments was aimed at pleasing the Shia electorate.

“Whoever carries out a demolition will win the sympathy of a particular sect and hurt the feelings of another sect,” he said. “Whoever did this cares about electoral gain, not his people’s feelings.”

Mosawi denied the monuments were being targeted with the election in mind.

“It is one step in a strategy approved earlier – the removal of symbols, monuments and statues that refer to Saddam or the Baath party,” he told IWPR. “It is part of the de-Baathification law approved by the Iraqi people.”

In January 2008, the Iraqi parliament passed a law barring from public life senior officials who were believed to have strong sympathies with the Baath party.

While the legislation maintained the tight restrictions on ex-Baathists imposed after the United States-led invasion in 2003, it eased curbs on lower-ranking officials and was hailed in some circles as an essential step towards national reconciliation.

Many public monuments that were closely identified with Saddam’s policies and personality had already been destroyed by the time the law was passed. Statues to the former leader and artwork glorifying his party’s ideology were torn down in the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion.

The Meeting monument at Mansour and the Arch of Victory were among the few that had survived the initial purge. Critics of the latest demolitions say these structures should be preserved as they are not overtly Baathist and have great cultural or historical significance.

Samer Sabah, an accountant who lives in Mansour, said the Meeting had recalled an era when Iraqis regularly holidayed abroad. The structure had towered over the main road leading westwards to Jordan and, since its construction in the early Nineties, had been used as a rendezvous point by families and drivers.

“This sculpture is not related to Saddam, it is related to each man and woman in this neighbourhood,” Sabah said. “Removing this monument is killing a moment from our lives, it means killing our memories.”

However, the abstract nature of the sculpture had invited other interpretations. An official from the committee in charge of demolishing Baathist-era monuments, who asked not to be named, said it represented Saddam’s bond with his public.

The Arch of Victory was built at the end of Iraq’s war with Iran, in which Saddam claimed his country had been victorious. A cast of his forearms is believed to have been used as a model for the giant metal hands, holding up the locked swords.

The swords formed an arch for military parades to pass beneath, while the ground around them was decorated with the helmets of Iranian soldiers, symbolising the slain enemy.

Some Iraqis want the monument preserved as a tribute to the sacrifice of their soldiers. Others see it as an affront to the hundreds of thousands killed in a pointless conflict.

“Why should we keep Saddam’s monuments on our land? The sons of a free Iraq should never be associated with Saddam’s culture – a culture stained in blood,” said Um Hanaa, a teacher, who did not wish to give her full name.

Jameel Abed Ali, a government employee, agreed that the removal of the former leader’s monuments was an occasion for celebration.

“Saddam did nothing for the Iraqi people. He was busy launching wars and building palaces and statues glorifying himself,” he said. “My son was executed by Saddam’s men because he refused to join the army in the war against Iran. Do you know how relieved I will be when the monument glorifying Saddam’s victory is demolished?”

However, Nabee Ghazi, a Baghdad taxi driver, said the Arch of Victory should be respected as a tribute to Iraq’s war dead.

“Iraqi soldiers sacrificed their lives to save their land. Will removing that monument bring them back?” he asked. The demolition of the monuments, he said, was being planned by Shia politicians as “a courtesy to the Iranian government”.

Many of Iraq’s Shia leaders have historic ties to Iran’s Shia theocracy, forged during decades of opposition to Saddam. They are often accused by Iraqi Sunni politicians of taking orders from Iran – a charge they deny.

Mahmud Aswad, a senior official from the ministry of culture and a member of the committee charged with removing Baath-era monuments, said the old structures were being taken down because they promoted “violence and bloodlust”.

“We will replace them with ones that match the new Iraq,” he told IWPR. “We need to make Baghdad the capital of an Iraq that has no hatred or revenge, neither towards Iran, nor any other neighbour.”

Hakeem Abdul Zahra, a senior official from the Baghdad municipality, also defended the demolition plan, saying it only targeted monuments that referred to the Baathist ideology.

Both Zahra and Aswad said the latest demolition order applied to the Arch of Victory, as well as the Meeting monument. Both men also told IWPR the order had been issued directly by Maliki.

However, Maliki’s aide, Mosawi, told IWPR the prime minister had ordered a stop to all demolition work of monuments that did not refer to “Saddam Hussein, his wars or the Baath party”.

When asked whether the Arch of Victory would still be demolished as it commemorated a war waged by the former leader, Mosawi said there were no plans to dismantle it at present but it might in future be moved to a museum.

“We will probably decide to keep the monument, not because we love Saddam but because it is evidence of Saddam’s crimes,” he said.

Asked why the initial demolition plan was reported to have included the Arch of Victory, Mosawi said “officials and committees sometimes misunderstand orders”.

The head of the Iraqi parliament’s committee of culture and tourism said monuments such as the arch could be moved to a museum but their demolition was “unacceptable”.

“If Iraqi people hate these structures because they remind them of Saddam’s crimes, we should remove them and keep them away from the public eye,” said Mufid al-Jezairy, a leader in the communist party.

For the time being, the Arch of Victory still stands in Baghdad’s International Zone. A large pile of rubble and twisted steel is all that remains of the Meeting monument in Mansour.

Saleem al-Hasany is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. Abeer Mohammed is IWPR Iraq’s senior local editor in Baghdad.
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