Anger, dread pervade Baghdad: "We have to fight the United States. Now this war is not against Saddam. It's against the religion of the people"
By Anthony Shadid
April 10, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The family of Firas Ismail stood anxiously around the corner from Firdaus Square, a site made historic by the televised images of Saddam Hussein's bronze statue crashing to the ground a year ago Friday. Almost in unison, family members flailed their arms as Firas approached. Then they shouted in desperation. "Get back!" they yelled. "Get back!"
Firas was trying to cross a street along the square to come home. But on this day, the anniversary of Hussein's fall, no one was allowed close. New rolls of razor-sharp wire, glinting in the sun, encircled the tattered park -- a precaution against attacks at nearby hotels or to prevent potentially embarrassing protests. Tanks stood vigilant with names like "Beastly Boy" and "Bloodlust" scrawled across their barrels. U.S. soldiers had orders to shoot anyone with a weapon, and they fired in the air to warn
"It's like we're in a military base," said his 62-year-old father. "Look here," the father grumbled, pointing down the street to towering concrete barriers. "Look there," he said, gesturing down another street where knots of edgy soldiers stood guard. A friend, Raad Fouad, looked on. "We live in a city of ghosts," he said. He paused, then repeated the phrase. "A city of ghosts."
The toppling of Hussein's statue was a rare, indelible moment, the lasting image of the American entry into one of the Arab world's great capitals. It was a war tidily won, with the government disappearing in just hours. On the anniversary, in a city still at war, the scene was no less stark. Along a deserted street, toward an abandoned square, residents of this weary city bemoaned the promises broken, describing anger at their fate and dread over what lies ahead. Firdaus Square was again at center stage Friday -- in a city returned to the precipice.
"The people were oppressed for 35 years and now this?" asked the father. "It's gone from worse to even worse."
A year ago, Saadoun Street was a tableau -- in images at least -- like liberated Paris. Crowds, curious and jubilant, poured into the street to watch a line of tanks and armor parade toward Hussein's statue in Firdaus Square.
"We're bringing freedom for everyone," an Iraqi exile shouted from a microphone. "We're making a free Iraq."
"We were so happy with the fall of Saddam," Ismail recalled Friday, standing with his neighbors in the sun-drenched street and offering a guest a cigarette and glass of cold water. "We were all happy but we hoped it wouldn't become an occupation."
Even then, there were hints of ambivalence. Some threw candy, cigarettes and flowers at the soldiers, who were atop vehicles flying the U.S. flag. Others asked the Americans to take down the flag -- their request inaudible over the roar of tank engines. Some snapped up packets of food thrown by soldiers. Others looked away in disgust, their pride wounded.
Fouad, a burly man with a walrus mustache who has lived in the neighborhood for 34 years, reflected on that day. He had stayed indoors then, the memories of war still fresh. The threat of more war still keeps him inside.
"You come home from work, you open the door and you lock it," he said. "It's like we're in a prison now."
Fouad, a Christian, stood with Ismail, a Shiite Muslim.
"Anything can happen now," Fouad said.
"We've seen everything," Ismail added, "and this is the worst moment."
As they spoke, a Humvee drove down the street, its microphone blaring a message: "If we see anyone carrying a weapon, we'll fire on him. Please stay away from this area. Thank you."
The message was repeated throughout the day, at one point intersecting with the soft strains of Koranic recitation. At other times, the speakers switched to sounds more alien in Baghdad -- "Heart of Glass" by Blondie and "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash. An occasional burst of gunfire broke the square's silence. In late afternoon, the thunder of a mortar round rolled over the street.
"This pressure," Fouad said. "What does this pressure give birth to? It creates hatred. Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow."
Pulling down Hussein's statue was no easy task. Hundreds had swarmed inside the colonnaded park, where columns bore the initials "S.H." on their cupolas. They tried to bring down the statue with a rope, rocks and a sledgehammer. They never could. Finally, a Marine tank recovery vehicle plowed through the circle, crushing steps and a flower bed. A chain was tethered around the statue's neck, then to the vehicle. An effort that began in early afternoon ended at dusk, and the head was carted down the street.
Instead we got something worse
Iraqis have often remarked that they wish they could have overthrown Hussein themselves. The thought comes up in conversations about Hussein's legacy -- relentless repression, mass killings and, as a final insult, that he brought an occupation.
"They got rid of Saddam for us. None of us could have done it," Ismail said. "But they should have provided us with something better. Instead we got something worse." Fouad nodded. It was a question of respect, he said.
"The example is in front of you," he said. "Someone enters the street and they shoot him. Is that respect?"
There was often a debate in the weeks after Hussein's fall -- was it an occupation or liberation? Few debate that anymore. The sermons across Iraq on Friday were fierce, the messages bleak. In the southern town of Kufa, a statement by Moqtada Sadr, the young cleric whose militia has unleashed an uprising this week across southern Iraq, called on U.S. forces to withdraw and said they faced a revolution. At the Um Maarik Mosque in Baghdad, a leading Sunni cleric echoed the protests now heard in conversations across the country.
"Where is the democracy we were promised, the prosperous state that we were going to have?" he said to thousands of worshipers. "We have occupation, unemployment, bloodshed, hunger and so on."
Across town, in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, a poster was hung up on walls. "Long live the resistance," it said. It praised the Shiites for fighting troops in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City and Sunnis battling the U.S. military in Fallujah. "There is no Sunni or Shiite, only Islamic unity," it read. "Long live the Iraq of the mujaheddin," a religiously resonant word for blessed fighters.
In recent days, many Iraqis have noted the irony that the first, tentative signs of unity in a country deeply riven by sect and ethnicity have come in the face of the U.S. military forces that ended Hussein's apparatus of repression.
"By any means, we have to get rid of them," said Ahmed Mohammed, a 21-year-old Sunni Muslim sitting along Saadoun Street, swaths of the thoroughfare lined with concrete barriers, its curbs crushed by tank treads. "They lied, they lied to Iraqis. They have done nothing. We didn't take a step forward. We've taken a step backward."
Along the street were the tokens of Iraq's freedom. A Shiite banner hung near the gas station. Drifting from a speaker inside were the chants of mourning to mark a Shiite holiday. Advertisements for once-banned satellite phones lined the streets. In the square itself, Hussein's initials had been erased from the cupolas, and a green Shiite flag fluttered overhead from an unfinished modernist statue. Soldiers found a ladder Friday and took down a picture of Sadr, their new foe, pasted to its side.
Mohammed, though, was bleak. His brother, Amer, was killed three weeks ago in a drive-by shooting in Baghdad. Mohammed, sitting idly, had no work. And in the days ahead, he said, there would be "war in the streets."
"They came to overthrow Saddam," said Samir Abed Wahid, standing nearby. "Why are they fighting his victims?"
Wahid, a 32-year-old notary public, is the son of a Sunni father and a Shiite mother. He said he was frustrated by the bloodshed in Fallujah; he was angry at the crackdown on Sadr. He was outraged at perceived injustice, but helpless to do anything about it.
"We have no choice," he said. "We're too weak. We have to listen. No, we have to obey. We're too weak to only listen."
No matter, he said.
"We have to fight the United States. Now this war is not against Saddam. It's against the religion of the people. I'm ready to fight with my family -- in Karbala, in Fallujah. I don't care anymore."