The day the statue fell, as seen from Cairo to the Carolinas
The symbol of the end of Saddam Hussein's three-decade reign was met with joy and despair worldwide
| CAIRO, EGYPT
They all saw the statue fall.
The sheikh in Cairo watched it as he poured some juice and muttered under his breath at the TV in the mosque kitchen. The marine's wife watched it, too, over and over again, her heart racing as she flipped channels in her living room in North Carolina.
A thrilled Iraqi expatriate in California held back tears; so did a young, angry Palestinian in Jordan - but for opposite reasons.
A mother of eight witnessed it in Baghdad, not sure at all what she felt about the destruction in her hometown. A young US captain in Baghdad, farther from his hometown than he ever imagined, was certain: It was, for him, "awful good."
After 21 days of fighting, US troops entered downtown Baghdad last Wednesday. Within hours of their arrival, crowds of celebrating Iraqis rushed to Paradise Square to tear down a massive statue of the man who had brutally ruled them for the past 25 years. Others heralded the end of dictatorship with looting - pillaging government buildings, stripping apart everything they could. US tanks roamed the streets of the ancient capital.
The war was not over, and winning the peace had not really begun, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stressed that day.
But for these people and many others - in apartments, houses, tents, and trenches across the globe - the fall of that statue and the chaos which ensued in Baghdad were defining moments of the military campaign. Overshadowed was news of fewer civilian casualities than might have been expected, or more-clinical details of a speedy advance. Last week brought the end many had been anticipating - or dreading - and began to shape how they will view for years to come a US war watched hour by hour around the globe.
• • •
"Come celebrate with us," Sabria Naama said as she woke her daughter Esra at 6 a.m. in Chula Vista, Calif. "They're bringing down Saddam's statues. Iraqis themselves are doing it."
And so they were.
Esra sank into the mauve couch, instantly awake. Like many other Iraqi expatriates across the US, her emotions toppled over one another - there was joy at the news, but profound sadness that it had taken all those many years to arrive.
"I thought of my uncles who were executed by Saddam and of my grandfather killed by his troops for how they yearned to see this day," says Esra. "I cried for them and for the men who died in jails and prisons and troops and their mothers."
"I wanted to go there and hit those statues myself," she said, "...anything to release my anger."
Esra's dad, Abbas, had been up almost all night, munching on cereal and marveling at the images on his TV screen. "This to me is the freeing of 23 million hostages," said Abbas, a former colonel in the Iraqi air force who fled with his family after the first Gulf War. He wondered where Mr. Hussein had gone and where the information minister and all his cronies had taken cover. Was it possible they had all disappeared?
• • •
The first glimpse Karima Selman Methboub had of the American troops came as she was walking on Baghdad's Karrada street with three of her eight children. "We started to cry," Karima says. "You don't know your feelings. It's a mix of shock and terror. You don't know whether to be happy or sad."
Even as looting and lawlessness swept across Baghdad, a portrait of Hussein still clung to the Methboub's wall. It is a symbol to this family more of fond memories of stability and order than of love for repressive dictatorship.
Many Iraqis, in fact, say the image of the falling statue and cheering crowds that has become a media icon in the West gives a wrong impression about their ambivalence about the toppling of the regime. "I was very sad, after [US troops] came and destroyed the statue of Saddam, and Iraqis beat it with their shoes and broke it into pieces," says daughter Amal, who sports a bump on her head a week after falling in the dark stairwell while carrying water up to the second floor apartment.
Many Iraqis feel that a suffocating burden has been lifted from their daily lives. Still, there is fear of the unknown. "I thought all the people of Baghdad would stand like one hand against America, but Baghdad collapsed," Amal says. "Iraqis are welcoming them, but they don't know what America has in store for them."
• • •
Barely out of his teens, Radhi Hamza, a private in the Iraqi army, was nonetheless wise enough to know that when the Iraqi leadership were defeated, he would have to fend for himself. That's what scared him the most. In fact, as the war wore on, he says, escape was all anyone in his unit could talk about. No one wanted to be around when the Americans showed up, he admits, much less be fighting for Hussein.
"We would start discussing our escape even before we said as-salaam al-aikum in the morning," he recalls, of his last days in his military camp, 25 miles south of Kirkuk. "We never let anyone hear us."
The atmosphere in the camp was fearful, recalls Mr. Hamza. Their commanders were building shelters to defend against US air strikes, the troops were wondering whether American soldiers would parachute into the camp to attack them, and soldiers and officers alike were deserting every day. By the time the four privates fled, their unit - the first battalion of Infantry Brigade 847 in the Iraqi Army's First Corps - was down to half its normal strength of 500 soldiers.
Early last week, Hamza deserted together with his friend Hussein Alwan and two other Iraqi privates. They used extra pay they had recently received as incentive to stay and fight for the regime to bribe an administrative officer for forged passes out of camp. The young men then ducked out, hiding in the scrub until they were able to surrender to a Kurdish patrol traveling by.
The young men watched Wednesday's fall of Baghdad on a small TV in a Kurdish militia office, lounging around in civilian clothes borrowed from the Kurds and musing about their future. "We are glad," said Mr. Alwan, a farm boy turned soldier whose splayed toes and wide feet spoke to a life lived without shoes. "We want a new regime," said Hamza "A new and excellent regime," Alwan added with enthusiasm, "Mr. Bush's regime." Both men said they wanted to go home to their villages in central Iraq. Then, concluded Alwan, only half joking, "...we will wait to see if the American regime has any work for us."
• • •
"Those illiterates! They have no idea how they are humiliating themselves! And all of us Arabs! What a disaster!" protests Sheikh Eid Abdel Hamid Yussef, a high ranking cleric at Cairo's Al Azhar, the Muslim world's highest seat of Sunni learning. Three weeks ago, violent antiwar protests here were stopped only when the police brought in water cannons. Shoes were thrown, glass was broken, arrests were made. This week, the mosque is quiet.
"All those Iraqis capitulating and cheering the Americans," moans the sheikh, "...poor idiots. Illiterates... Shiites." He sighs. He is tired and depressed. "The Iraqis did not invite the Americans in, let us all remember that," he says. "Some are happy today, yes, granted." But, he stresses, "this does not make the Americans liberators. They are invaders. Invaders." And, he adds, "let us not forget what their original excuse was for attack. Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Where?...It's all lies."
• • •
When Sheikh Yussef saw Hussein's statue fall on TV on Wednesday - he turned the machine off and gave it a smack for good measure. "I have watched enough TV these past weeks in any case," he explains. "It's time to get back to regular life."
But, just because the protests here in Cairo and elsewhere in the Arab world have ended, he warns, does not mean that the anger has gone away. "I lived in America. I am very familiar with the place and the mentality," he says, recalling fondly his three years as an imam of a mosque in Cherry Hill, N.J.
"They will want to stay. Be in control. Call the shots.... It's the American way," he explains, pointing to the brief raising of the American flag over the face of Hussein's statue on Wednesday as proof of his theory. "They have designs. But, let me warn you ... if the Americans do not get out of there very fast - we will hate the US even more, we will feel more and more pained."
But one man's pain and source of hatred is, in this case, another woman's pride and joy. Tilly Fowler was once the highest-ranking woman in the US Congress, a Republican from Jacksonville, Fla., who fought tooth and nail against President Clinton's defense cuts. Today, she is a Washington lawyer and an advisor to Secretary Rumsfeld on defense policy.
Ms. Fowler could not get enough of the pictures of the Saddam statue being toppled. "I saw it... about four different times and it was great each time I saw it," she says.
Fowler supported the war in Iraq from the start. "We had a dictator with weapons of mass destruction who was not abiding by United Nations resolutions. There was no choice," she says, making no mention of the fact that no WMD have yet been found.
"It's been an amazing two-and-a-half weeks, and look what has been accomplished. It's not just technology, it's that our people are so well trained," she says. She especially appreciated "the compassion" of the troops. "When you see them holding a young child, giving candy to those children, helping an older person, I thought, 'These are Americans, that's what we are all about.'
"Yesterday, one of our guys was shown carrying a wounded Iraqi soldier on his back to get help," she continues. "Iraq wouldn't do that for our soldiers. Those images are so striking because they show us so much about what we are as a people."
What about all the humanitarian aid and compassion being given to the Iraqi people by the Americans, the sheikh is asked. "Please," he snorts. "You have killed children and desecrated a holy city."
Capt. Jason Smith from Baton Rouge, La., was in the Marine First Division "1/5" battalion that crossed the Tigris River into Baghdad in the wee hours of Thursday morning - avoiding sniper fire as it made a beeline for the palace, one of Hussein's favorites.
There, Captain Smith rummaged through the rubble of fallen chandeliers and broken mother-of-pearl table tops to look for "a souvenir" to take home to Baton Rouge. There were brass urns, and statues of lions and deer, and gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms. In Saddam Hussein's bedroom, the floors are inlaid with marble. "Most of this stuff is pretty cheap," he says. "Everything is fake, mostly kitsch and lots of plastic. But just to be here walking on this pool deck is a thrill."
The fighting was heavy driving in, he recalls, "and we had guys jumping out from behind walls shooting rockets at us, but we just fired back at them with such violence that they had to take a step back."
Now, on the green lawn behind the palace, the Marines wash their laundry in the Euphrates River. "If you asked me last year sometime if I would be standing in one of Saddam's Palaces, I would have laughed at you," says Smith, tossing back his head and laughing now. "It feels awful good to be a part of this, and I can tell you that the Marines in my company are feeling the same way."
• • •
Many in Baghdad don't feel as equally enthusiastic. "Liberation" has become, for some, even a dirty word. "I am very worried about the mob; people are stealing and looting everything," Ms. Methboub says from her apartment across town. "Maybe they will enter the houses and rape women and even the girls in our house. Things are not in order."
"This is not changing the regime. This is invading. It is occupation," says Ali Ahmad, a salesman and Methboub's neighbor. "I am one of those who was oppressed and depressed by the former government, but I wish that government would come back," says Mr. Ahmad, leaning forward in the lantern light to make his point. "I felt oppressed in this country, but I love Saddam Hussein. I don't know why."
He predicts that those Iraqis who destroyed the statue of Hussein would change their views in coming years, and that many who today say they welcome American troops are "hiding their true feelings."
• • •
American anti-war activist and grandmother Cynthia Banas climbed out of her basement shelter in Baghdad after three weeks of aerial bombardment and met some of her countrymen- US troops- on the street. Weeks of debate and anxiety among the handful of Western peace activists beneath the al-Fanar Hotel about how to script the first meeting, fell away when they saw how hot the troops were. Banas brought them water, explaining the Iraqi tradition of welcoming strangers.
The soldiers told her that Iraqis had been "kissing their feet all the way up from Najaf," Banas recalls. "I said, 'Well you know, your air force terrorized the people of Baghdad for three weeks, and I don't think all Iraqis feel that way about you here." She blames the American troops for the bedlam and destruction which followed the fall of the city. They should have stopped it, she argues. The troops, on their part, were surprised to see American citizens here, and, some were presumably not impressed with their activities.
But both sides were cor- dial to one another. "They were very respectful. It's not like we were yelling 'Go home.' It was a very serious time," recounts Banas. "I told them: 'You can risk your life for war, but we need people who will risk life for peace.'"
• • •
Kurdish Col. Riyad Haji Abdullah feels sorry for the young Iraqi deserters. "It was very sad to see them like that," says Colonel Abdullah. The Kurdish logistics officer, with hair the color of minced carrots and a complexion already scorched by a hot April's sun, was fighting last week near the northern city of Mosul. "They were forced be in Saddam's army."
After just one night of fighting, the Iraqi units he was up against put down their weapons and came out carrying white flags. Abdullah was not triumphant. He watched more with pity than pride as the Iraqi soldiers turned themselves over to the Kurdish pesh merga. He, too, had once been a young, frightened recruit, drafted into the Iraqi army. Toward the end of the 1991 Gulf War, he defected and slipped over Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia, later making his way to northern Iraq, where his fellow Kurds were staging an uprising against the Hussein regime.
The Iraqi army brutally crushed that rebellion, regaining this very town after Kurds had liberated it for about a week.
The end of the war this time, for him - as for so many Kurds - is startling because, for a change, it did not have devastating consequences for the Kurds.
As Baghdad fell, Abdullah and his men fanned out across this town and waited for order to drive deeper towards Mosul, Abdullah's hometown. They were itchy to push forward, but wary of jumping ahead without orders from their U.S. allies. The challenges ahead, he acknowledges, are enormous. Abdullah, a father of seven children, has five sons who might also grow up to be soldiers. In the new Iraq, however, he hopes they won't have to follow in their father's footsteps. "Maybe they can be doctors, engineers, whatever," he says. "But not soldiers."
• • •
Timothy Clingersmith does not watch the news. He is 6 years old and his mother does not allow it. Instead, this skinny young boy in Havelock, N.C., engrosses himself with The Weather Channel, and when his dad - Marine mechanic Tom Clingersmith - gets in touch from Iraq, the two discuss neither war nor victory nor, of course, the deaths of innocent children far away. Only sandstorms.
"He's been the hardest hit by all this," says Timothy's mother Elizabeth. "He's at an age where he can't put this in context, and where maybe he's convinced that all the soldiers are going to die."
Elizabeth does not watch much news either these days. Her wartime TV diet has become the afternoon soaps. She is one of the few Marine wives here at Cherry Point Marine Air Station who has limited the news stream, mainly to shield her three kids, but also, she admits, to keep her own frayed nerves from fluttering.
But, on Wednesday, after hearing about the scene in Baghdad, she sat for hours, watching the images replayed over and again. Not gloating, like Tilly Fowler, but relieved. Her e-mail circle of friends sent inside information on the event - even naming the marine who wrapped the flag around the statue's head. "It's great to see the Iraqi people wanting to hug the Marines," says Elizabeth, who has been married to Tom for 15 years. "They're out there so we don't have to live in fear, like [the Iraqis] have for so long."
That evening, she sat the kids down on the family's plush couches and tried to share her excitement over the fall of Baghdad. But she was careful to temper their expectations about Dad's return. The kids just listened, unsure, it seemed, of how to connect the joy of a liberated people with their own sadness.
• • •
"Mike," like Timothy, didn't see the images of the fall of Baghdad on TV either. But he is no kid- he was just busy fighting.
Twentyfive years ago, this man, code-named "Mike" for security reasons, fled Iraq as Hussein consolidated power. Two weeks ago, he returned as a member of a US-trained opposition militia. "I left by car and I came back by Humvee," he recounts. "I was happy to come back with the Americans." In 1978, when he left, he took a handful of dust and kissed it. When he returned, he took dust and kissed it again.
As he rode in the Humvee en route to the former Iraqi air base of Talil, outside Nasariyah, Mike looked intently at the people. The kids waved at him. But the older people looked away. Mike chalked it up to the US pullout after the first Gulf War. "They were still afraid," he said to himself. But he wanted to tell them: "No, my people, this time it will be real.'"
When Hussein's statue toppled in Baghdad, Mike's comrade Ishmael ran up and told him the news. "I thought he was kidding so I took the radio," he recalls. Then he heard it for himself. "I was crying, I was screaming."
"I wanted a TV. I wanted to see it with my own eyes," he says. He likened the moment to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Back then, he remembers, the East Germans came over saying they wanted Volkswagens. "In Iraq, we want freedom, and freedom will bring us the right way to rebuilding."
• • •
Walid Aldalu was composing an e-mail on Wednesday afternoon in Amman, Jordan, exploring the prospects for work in post-war Iraq, when he looked up from his computer, glanced at the television, and saw the Stars and Stripes wrapped around a statue of Hussein. Was that the sort of "freedom" the Iraqi people deserved, he wondered, upset.
"What do you want to show, that you are torturers?" he yelled out at the young American who had tied the flag to the effigy. "Don't do it!"
Mr. Aldalu, a Palestinian who runs his own satellite-dish installation business in Amman, is not pleased with the behavior of the Americans. Nonetheless, he has high hopes for the aftermath of the war - both for Iraq, and for himself personally.
"I want to be part of reconstructing Iraq," he says. "I have contacts in the communications field, and in construction, and I hope I can do something useful for the foreign companies that will come," he comments. "The economic situation in Jordan is not so great at the moment, and I want to improve my income. Everybody wants to do that, but I want to do it in a good way."
Abbas, the Iraqi exile in California, has similar hopes and plans. He is searching, through the Defense and State departments, for safe ways back to Iraq to check two homes sacked by Hussein and three pharmacies he owned before the Baath Party expropriated them. He has spent the last three days with no sleep, with customers and acquaintances hugging him at the local Rite Aid where he fills prescriptions.
The family of his wife, Sabria, still owns 300 acres of farm near Najaf. She will go to Washington this week to begin a series of formal training in childcare, primary education, health care, and basic finance to teach compatriots after she heads back to help in the reconstruction of Iraq.
Daughter Esra, meanwhile, an activist for women's issues who was given audience last week by President Bush in the White House, says she will stop at nothing to make sure the democracy planned for Iraq, will be "proper and complete." She sees a very tough road ahead for the new Iraq.
"We are going to have to show the world that we can see beyond our differences and unite," says Esra. "We are going to have to rebuild block by block."
"I'm telling everyone I don't want our next leader, whoever that is, to put all our money in his pocket, like Saddam did. I am going to fight for a diverse government, one that is fair to all groups including women. I mean it. I will fight for equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunity."
"It's been wonderful for many of us here in America to see first hand what democracy can provide," says Esra. "I want it all: schools, movie theaters, restaurants, pools, fast-food. I am not going to be silent."
• • •
Back in Havelock, N.C., Elizabeth has no business plans or ideas about taking part in the reconstruction of a future Iraq. All she wants, is for her husband, Tom, to come home.
Indeed, as the war came to some conclusion last week, Elizabeth's task turned, like the men and women in Iraq, to cleaning up the aftermath. Instead of burnt-out tanks and spent shells, she had to content herself with different sorts of havoc wrought by the war: The children's rooms were a mess, the two youngest had been fighting nonstop, and Andrew had been getting into trouble at school, acting out and unable to contain a deep rage that he's then unable to explain.
The fall of Baghdad has set a new course for the Clingersmiths: After the chaos around the departure, the uncertainty in the days afterwards, the slow reckoning of absence, there's now a diligent return to form: "I'm starting to cook dinners again," says Elizabeth. "There's leftovers in the fridge right now - that's a good sign." And this week, she vows to get everybody's room cleaned up, and settle in to wait for the return of their Marine - a wait which just got, she hopes, a little shorter.
• • •
They all saw the statue fall - The young Iraqi deserter in Northern Iraq, wearing borrowed civilian clothes too big for him and hoping for a better future; The toughened Washington, D.C., lawyer, sure of the righteousness of her country's ways; The excited Marine in Baghdad, meandering through a marble palace and picking out an gold gilded ashtray for his wife back home; And the Baghdad man, missing the dictator, though unable to explain quite why.
Whether Hussein himself saw the fall of his likeness, and from where is besides the point. It was toppled, and the world was immediately very changed.