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New Flag Provokes Fury

Ordinary Iraqis say Governing Council has no right to alter national symbol.
By Omar Anwar

In Falluja, an angry crowd was filmed burning it - and in Baghdad leaflets warned that any public buildings flying it would be destroyed.


For most people here, the Iraqi Governing Council’s adoption of a new national flag has come as an unpleasant surprise.


Designed by Rifaat al-Chaderchi, a London-based architect and the brother of an IGC member, it has a white background signifying peace, a crescent to represent Islam, two blue lines for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and a yellow band between them denoting the Kurds.


Councillors had earlier expressed discomfort with the old flag, which is said to bear an Islamic motto in the handwriting of former president Saddam Hussein. The IGC does not use it at its press conferences or other official events.


But for many Iraqis, the new emblem represents the agenda of the Coalition-appointed IGC, and its perceived desire to reshape the country, without having a mandate from the people to do so.


Arab satellite channels have broadcast scenes of an angry crowd in Fallujah burning the new flag while brandishing the old one.


In Baghdad, leaflets signed by the "Mohammed Squadron" were circulated in a number of areas threatening to destroy any public buildings flying the so-called "Israeli flag".


The belief that it mirrors the Israeli one stems in part from the blue and white colour scheme.


It also comes from the view – widespread in the Arab world – that the two blue bands on the Israeli emblem likewise represent two rivers: the Nile and the Euphrates, an area earmarked, many Iraqis believe, for a Greater Israel.


"Take off the crescent and put the Star of David, and let it be a Jewish flag," said Ali Ismat, a computer shopkeeper.


The old flag was altered after the 1991 Gulf War to bear the motto "Allahu Akbar", or God is Great, reportedly in Saddam's own handwriting, but Ismat does not believe it represents the former president.


He also questions why the Kurds, of all Iraq's religious and ethnic minorities, are singled out for representation on the new emblem.


"Why not the Turcoman or the Assyrians or the Shiites or other ethnicities?" he asked.


IGC president Massoud Barzani has said that the new flag is only a temporary one, to be replaced once an elected government is in place.


Nonetheless, many Baghdadis are angry that the council should take even such a limited step towards changing a national symbol.


"Is there a government, is there a sovereign that can change the flag?" asked grocer Ahmed al-Sheikhly.


Sheikhly jokingly asks a policeman who has come into his shop why he doesn't replace a shoulder badge, comprising the old emblem, on his uniform.


The policeman clamps his hand on the badge, declaring, "The banner of 'God is Great' will never come down."


"We are a Muslim country, so why would they take Allah Akbar off?" said Mohammed Saleh Hama Fetah, a taxi driver from the predominantly Kurdish town of Sulimaniya.


But he conceded that he would be willing to accept "any flag if it was accepted by the rest of Iraqis".


For some, the adoption of the new emblem was a humiliation.


"The regime fell on April 9 [2003] but now I feel that Iraq has fallen," said Khalid Saleem al-Azawi, a public servant at the industry ministry.


Azawi believes the IGC has no right to change the flag, “They shouldn't change anything since they were appointed by the US.”


For some older Iraqis, the old emblem – adopted after the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy – represents an important part of their history.


"Let it go to hell," said Haji Taha al-Samarai, 64, a retired public servant, of the new flag. The old one, he says, "is our history, and I refuse to change my history."


Only one Iraqi interviewed by IWPR approved of the new design.


“The flag should be changed because everything is changing in Iraq," said a grocer from the south Baghdad district of Kerrada.


Nonetheless, he still had an issue with the un-elected government pushing through the move.


Omar Anwar is an IWPR trainee.


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