By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 9, 2006
BAGHDAD -- The fountain shaped like a ship was stripped bare and reduced to a pile of crumbled marble and concrete in Museum Circle. Other sculptures, of a helmeted soldier, a sheaf of wheat and a cluster of people holding up sunflowers -- all erected as symbols of prosperity and power under Saddam Hussein -- were removed.
On Palestine Street, the statue of an Iraqi soldier, his arms tied between two vehicles pulling them out of their sockets, was taken down, too. The monument was dedicated to prisoners of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and while Hussein's Baath Party was in power, all Iraqi schools observed a moment of silence every Dec. 1 to commemorate the horror it depicted.
In a decision in October that has polarized residents of the capital, the officially sanctioned Debaathification Committee ordered the removal of memorials and monuments it deemed offensive. The move has brought a sensitive issue into sharp focus: How much of the era of Hussein, now on trial for crimes against humanity, should be preserved for posterity?
The committee, which also vets former members of the Hussein government for inclusion in the current government, drew up the edict on the monuments, labeled Document 900, in secret. It has never been made public. The list of memorials to be removed throughout the country has not been disclosed.
"Our task is to take down the symbols of the former regime that remind people of the bloody era of the former regime," said Khalid Shami, general manager of the committee's educational and cultural section, who acknowledged in an interview that the decision had been made. "Anything connected to the Baath Party is going down."
Shami said the Baath Party monument in Museum Circle was the first to be removed as an obvious symbol of Hussein and his rule. The memorial to prisoners of the Iran-Iraq war was taken down, he said, because it "represented huge propaganda for a lie Saddam Hussein passed to people."
But many people here have been appalled by the destruction of the monuments, as well as the stealth with which the committee has gone about its work. There was no public consultation on the decision to tear down the statues, and residents learned of it only after they began noticing that pieces of statues were missing.
Nidhal Mawsawi, a columnist at Azzaman newspaper, compared the committee's actions to removing American monuments to the Holocaust or the Civil War -- painful periods in history that are nonetheless worthy of memorialization.
"These monuments and statues should not be removed completely," Mawsawi said. "Only the parts that represented the crimes of the former regime should be removed and put in a museum, just like the museums in Germany. These statues represent a period of time in the Iraqi history, even if it was not good. I think this is the reason behind the disappointment of the people."
Shami said the committee had divided the effort into phases. The first called for the removal of the Baath Party monument and others related to Hussein. Next, the committee will remove less significant tributes, including paintings, pictures and the small statues from the decades-long Hussein era that remain in public buildings. Last, the committee will erase the graffiti and slogans of the former government on walls and buildings around the country.
When Iraqi residents first noticed pieces of the monuments disappearing in October and learned through Iraqi newspapers that this was official policy, the news created an uproar. Even many Shiite Muslims and Iraqi Kurds, who were persecuted under Hussein and the Baath Party, called on the government to stop removing the monuments, arguing that they were necessary reminders of their suffering and an important part of the country's history.
One of the most staunch critics of the decision was the mayor of Baghdad, Sabir Isawi, a religiously conservative Shiite Muslim from the Sadr City neighborhood whose ornate office is adorned with a tall, wooden lattice of the Baath Party symbol, an eight-pointed star. In an interview, Isawi said only parts of the monuments should have been removed.
"I am committed to keep these monuments as a historical representation," he said.
Noori Rawi, Iraq's minister of culture, said all memorials and statues related to Hussein and his nearly three decades in power will be moved to storage. Most of those depicting the deposed president have already been defaced or destroyed.
In one of the most memorable scenes of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Baghdad residents assisted by American armored vehicles pulled down a massive statue of Hussein on April 9, 2003.
"As Iraqis, we don't feel the need to keep these statues of a killer," Rawi said. "There is no need to show these things to the people. Maybe, only after 100 years, when there will be a new generation, we will show them that this is the man who destroyed Iraq."
In 2003, the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq spent $35,000 to remove four 30-foot-high busts of Hussein from his former Republican Palace in the Green Zone, where U.S. officials had set up camp. At the time, the Culture Ministry, which was being advised by the Americans, said the busts would be moved for safekeeping until a decision was made on what to do with them.
On a patio near the former Iraqi Captive Monument-- where a mural of Hussein has been replaced by one of a leading Shiite cleric, Abdul Aziz Hakim -- passersby expressed mixed views about the removal of the memorial. All that remained were the brick facade and spikes that had once held up the copper figures of the Iraqi soldier, tanks and a barricade.
"I was a war prisoner, and you can never imagine how much I suffered when in an Iranian prison," said Muhammad Hussein, 42, who sells cigarettes from a small shop. "Every time I passed that memorial, it made me remember and it made me feel good that Iraqis still remember."
Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, said he was opposed to removing the memorials and criticized what he perceived as the influence of Iranians in the decision.
"They are trying to change our history and fill the country with their sheik posters," he said. "We are going to be another Iran. In Iran, I had to tell them that I am Shiite and pray like Shiites so they would not hurt me."
But Sattar Hassan, 45, also a former prisoner of war, said he was happy the monument had been taken down.
"Every time I used to pass by this memorial, it reminded me of that war and increased the hate I have inside my heart," he said. "I transferred this hate to my children, so I think they have to remove those statues so we will forget. We cannot start a new Iraq if we do not turn the page on this past."
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti, Naseer Nouri and Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.