On 10th anniversary of Baghdad's fall, Iraqis remain torn

Many Iraqis are glad Saddam Hussein is gone, but still grieve about what followed.

Hadi Mizban/AP
In this photo taken on Sunday, a general view of Ferdos Square, where the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down by US forces and Iraqis one year ago today in 2003, in central Baghdad, Iraq.

Ferdos square, where Saddam Hussein's statue stood until toppled by jubilant Iraqis on this day in 2003, was largely deserted today. Elsewhere in the capital, Baghdad residents struggled to get to work on streets choked with traffic and blocked by concrete walls and security checkpoints.

Iraqis have largely shrugged off the 10-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, even as they struggle still with the fallout of the US invasion: heightened security measures, ongoing violence, and a country much more divided than it was a decade ago.

In the first two years of post-war Iraq, April 9 was declared a public holiday, but later the day became linked with a US occupation that few wanted to celebrate. 

Sections of the statue, erected in 2002 to honor Saddam Hussein’s birthday, were sold as souvenirs and scrap metal after it was brought down. But part of his bronze foot, too embedded to pry out of the concrete, remains. 

“They toppled about half of it and people were interested in his head,” says Hisham Chaloub, one of thousands of Iraqis who gathered around the square 10 years ago. 

He says when a group of Kurdish artists came with iron cutters for the rest, he convinced them he had a right to have part of it, and sold the section of the statue for less than $2 to show the contempt he held him in. 

“Saddam was living in paradise and we were living in hell,” he says.  

Divided sentiments

In the north of Iraq, where Kurds were the targets of a campaign by Saddam Hussein that included poison gas and the destruction of thousands of villages, April 9 continues to be a public holiday. 

But in Anbar province, tens of thousands of people turned out for mass prayers and a protest in which they burned American flags. In the largely Sunni province, April 9 is widely considered an unlucky day. Some parents even change the official birthdays of their children if born on that day. 

The divide between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis that brought the country to civil war has widened again recently, with many Sunni Iraqis saying the Shiite-led government has discriminated against them since Saddam fell.

At Baghdad’s National Theatre, not far from Ferdos square, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki attended a play commemorating the April 9 execution of the founder of the Islamic Dawa party two decades before Baghdad fell.

 “The Tragedy of al-Sadr” tells the story of Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, a dissident Shiite cleric who was imprisoned, tortured, and executed, along with his sister Amina, in 1980. Sadr was the father-in-law of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading political force in Iraq. 

Struggling to move on

Many still blame the United States for the last decade of conflict and hardship. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed during the war and the violence that followed. The fighting also prompted an exodus of Iraqi professionals that continues today.

At Iraq’s National Museum, a group of young Iraqis lit candles Monday to mark the loss of part of their heritage that disappeared when the museum was looted and damaged. 

For many it was the first time they were seeing the museum, which is still closed to the public because of security and budget problems.

“I was a teenager in 2003,” says Ali Ali al-Makhzomy, a social activist who organized the event. “I was happy the Americans were here. I thought they would make a big difference between what it was like in the 90s and what came after but after 10 years I don’t know how to describe my feelings.”

“If that was the American plan it was a problem, but if they weren’t planning at all, it’s even worse,” he says. 

Wasfi, the former director of the National Symphony Orchestra, could live anywhere but he has stayed to run a music school he founded to bring together Iraqi young people. 

“I think the change [toppling Saddam] was crucial and whether it has good impact or bad impact that’s for Iraqis to reshape… and to decide to live normally and calmly and decently.”

Iraqi authorities have drastically increased security in the capital over the last two days in the run-up to provincial elections, leading to epic traffic jams and two and three-hour trips across town. Security officials privately say the roadblocks and increased checks will last until voters go to the polls on April 20.  

The government has also increased security to guard against retaliation as it carries out executions of prisoners on death row. Those hanged include leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq – executions which have previously prompted bombings by the group. 

The Justice Ministry said yesterday that it had hanged seven more Iraqi men but refused to name them or their crimes. Iraq has one of the highest execution rates and least judicial transparency in the world. Human rights groups and relatives of prisoners say many are tortured into confessions used to convict and sentence them to death.

“It’s not about celebrating,” says Makhzomy about the former public holiday. “A lot of people have painful memories because their parents, brothers, sisters got killed or kidnapped. They faced a lot of hardship after 2003 until now. It’s not about Saddam. I think three-quarters of Iraqi people were happy about ending Saddam’s rule or dictatorship in general but I think what happened after the regime is still painful.”

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