Saddam's spectre lives on in landmarks

2013-03-18 15:15
Flames are superimposed on pictures of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein displayed at the Shaheed Monument in Baghdad, Iraq. (Khalid Mohammed, AP)

Flames are superimposed on pictures of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein displayed at the Shaheed Monument in Baghdad, Iraq. (Khalid Mohammed, AP)

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Baghdad — The soaring half domes of the Martyr Monument stand out against the drabness of eastern Baghdad, not far from where Saddam Hussein's feared eldest son was said to torture underperforming athletes.

Saddam built the split teardrop-shaped sculpture in the middle of a manmade lake in the early 1980s to commemorate Iraqis killed in the Iran-Iraq War. The names of hundreds of thousands of fallen Iraqi soldiers are inscribed in simple Arabic script around the base.

Today the monument stands as a memorial to a different sort of martyr. In recent years, the Shi'ite-led government has begun turning it into a museum honouring the overwhelmingly Shi'ite and Kurdish victims of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.

The transformation of the Martyr Monument and other Saddam-era sites highlights Iraq's effort to memorialise those persecuted by the former dictator and purge many symbols of his rule. Yet a decade on from the US-led invasion, Iraqis still grapple with the country's postwar identity and how much should be done to cleanse Iraq of traces of the strongman.

It is a tricky balancing act that risks exacerbating Iraq's already strained sectarian tensions. Many Iraqi Sunnis today feel their sect has been marginalised and unfairly persecuted by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. For Baghdad, the historical clean-up effort has the added benefit of ridding Iraq of many uncomfortable references to war with Shiite heavyweight Iran, an increasingly important ally.

The Martyr Monument now features mannequins striking gruesome, if not particularly convincing, poses to display firing-squad executions and the unearthing of mass graves. Also depicted here are the poison-gas killings of around 5 000 Kurds by Saddam’s forces in the northern town of Halabja 25 years ago this month.

Empty pedestal

Kifah Haider, spokesperson for the government-backed Establishment of Martyrs, which oversees the site, denied that the museum gives preference to certain victims over others.

"We wanted to document the crimes of the former regime," he said. "It's so this generation learns about the crimes they didn't have to live through."

The site plays up the majority Shi'ites' role in opposing Saddam's rule. Images of turbaned Shi'ite clerics, including many family members and political allies of Iraq's postwar political elite, gaze down upon visitors. One banner depicts al-Maliki signing Saddam's execution order. Posters show hellish fires superimposed on photos of the ousted leader.

The Martyr Monument is located about 4km from Firdous Square, where 10 years ago on live television US Marines memorably hauled down a Soviet-style statue of Saddam, symbolically ending his rule.

Today, that pedestal in central Baghdad stands empty. Bent iron beams sprout from the top, and posters of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in military fatigues are pasted on the sides.

But Saddam's grandiose creations live on elsewhere.

Insults scrapped

The crossed-sword archways he commissioned during Iraq's nearly eight-year war with Iran stand defiantly on a little-used parade ground inside the Green Zone, the fortified district that houses the sprawling US Embassy and several government offices.

Iraqi officials began tearing down the archways in 2007 but quickly halted those plans and then started restoring the monument two years ago. Nevertheless, the hundreds of Iranian soldiers' helmets that once spilled from the base of the sculptures, suggesting an Iranian defeat that never actually happened, were removed.

Other insults to neighbouring Iran, with which the postwar Iraqi government has increasingly close ties, have been scrapped too. A statue of a pilot who once stood atop the wreckage of an Iranian fighter jet recently disappeared from downtown Baghdad.

Some Shi'ites say more needs to be done to exorcise Saddam's spectre and that of the now-outlawed Baath party he once led.

"The removal campaign should go on until we get rid of everything that reminds us of this criminal and his party," Shi'ite lawmaker Ali al-Alaq said.

But other Iraqis fear that too much of Saddam's larger-than-life legacy has already been lost.

No understanding of art

Sinan al-Obeidi, a history professor at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, argues that some Saddam statues and other works should have been kept so future generations can learn what his rule was like.

"If every ruler ... destroyed remnants of the previous era or civilization, then we would not have any antiquities or archaeological sites left to see," he said.

Baghdad-based artist Nassir al-Rubaie understands the desire to rid Iraq of Saddam’s statues, but he fears things have gone too far.

"Unfortunately, some of the people who are handling the removal issue have no understanding of the meaning of art," he said.

It was easy to wipe away some traces of the dictator's legacy, like renaming Saddam International Airport — now Baghdad International — or Baghdad's double-decker Leader Bridge, now known as Hassanain Bridge in commemoration of two of the holiest Shi'ite saints. New banknotes without Saddam's portrait began circulating within months of the invasion.

Other relics from Saddam's cult of personality have proved trickier to address.

Cagey about location

Religious officials from Saddam's Sunni sect are reluctant to discuss the fate of a Qur'an allegedly written in blood donated by the leader during the 1990s. The book was once held in a Baghdad mosque previously named "The Mother of All Battles" that has minarets said to resemble Kalashnikov barrels and Scud missiles.

Mahmoud al-Sumaidaie, the deputy head of Iraq’s Sunni Endowment, which oversees the sect's holy sites, said it's no longer there. But he was cagey about its current location. He would confirm only that the book is in Iraq and declined a request by The Associated Press to see it.

"We are working hard not to provoke anyone," he said. "A day might come when the country is totally stable and we can show it."

Modern bricks stamped with Saddam's name that were used in heavy-handed reconstruction efforts during his rule still mar the ancient site of Babylon, long associated with the legendary hanging gardens and the Tower of Babel.

One of the few remaining public images of Saddam, in bas relief, stands inside the rarely visited archaeological site — defaced with graffiti and bullet holes.

Elsewhere in Iraq, some parts of Saddam's legacy have been literally painted over.

Uncomfortable political past

In the central square of Baghdad's Sadr City, the sprawling Shi'ite stronghold once named Saddam City, a large outdoor image of the ousted leader commanding his troops has been replaced with a painting of al-Sadr's father and father-in-law, both ayatollahs.

Iraq is of course not the only country that has had to figure out how to deal with an uncomfortable political past.

Germany outlaws displays of Nazi symbols such as the swastika and SS runic insignia. In post-Soviet Russia and Hungary, officials turned old Communist relics into tourist attractions by gathering them into statue parks. Still, Russians remain divided on whether Vladimir Lenin’s mummified corpse, on display in Moscow’s Red Square, should be finally laid to rest.

Back at the turquoise-tiled Martyr Monument in Baghdad, visitors said they were moved by the exhibits, which include a graphic film depicting Saddam's crimes. Many were just happy to have a chance to take cell-phone snapshots of themselves with the towering sculpture.

"It's a big contradiction here. He built this monument, and now it’s being used to show his crimes," said Abeer Ali, a student at Baghdad's Institute of Applied Arts. But, she added, perhaps the monument's new use is fitting. "Saddam is now giving his victims immortality," she said.

Read more on:    saddam hussein  |  iraq

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