Watching Saddam fall

I thrilled to see Baghdadis topple the statue of their tyrant. And yet it's entirely too early for us to know exactly what it means.

Published April 9, 2003 5:20PM (EDT)

I woke up in San Francisco Wednesday morning to amazing footage of Baghdad on CNN; you probably saw it too. For more than an hour cameras watched as Iraqis worked to topple the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. First they threw shoes and struck it with what seemed to be hammers; then the Marines joined in, and worked alongside Baghdadis to bring the big ugly talisman down into the street, where Iraqis could dance on him.

Still, as soldiers and civilians did the painstaking work of figuring out how to topple this false Saddam -- Tie a rope around his neck? No, a chain around his foot. No, a chain around his neck! -- I had to wonder: Why was CNN fixated on the scene? Anchor Paula Zahn admitted there was fierce fighting two miles away at Baghdad University, looting and rioting all over the city, more looting in Basra, where bandits are selling food and other humanitarian aid on the black market. But CNN was focused on Firdos Square, of course, because its producers knew I'd watch -- we're all trained to crave our symbolism at times like this, and to savor it even when its meanings aren't clear.

I'm glad they toppled the statue of Saddam. I thrilled to see Baghdadis dance on it, and carry the big iron head away. I'd be happy to see the same punishment meted out to the man himself. But what happened Wednesday evening in Baghdad has no more to tell us about the outcome of this intervention than the strike that didn't kill Saddam March 19.

Watching the footage I couldn't help wondering: Where is the real Saddam, anyway? The story keeps changing. For a while, military sources said they were pretty sure he was either killed or wounded by that first strike three weeks ago. Those were body doubles or prerecorded tapes we were seeing on Iraqi TV. Then, as we have with Osama bin Laden, we seemed to lose track of the Iraqi dictator -- but it didn't matter. Administration sources assured us he no longer had control of the regime. But suddenly, on Monday, it mattered again, enough to drop four 2,000-pound bunker-buster bombs on a restaurant in a crowded neighborhood, killing 13 civilians. We thought we got him. But now, though CIA sources are saying he's dead, British officials think we missed him.

Maybe Saddam's whereabouts don't matter. The regime seems defeated. Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf didn't pop up out of his hiding place like a whack-a-mole Wednesday, with more delusional stories of Iraqi resistance. Empty government buildings are being looted. Yet there's plenty of Iraqi resistance to come. Forces are moving north now, expecting massive resistance in Saddam's ancestral home in Tikrit. That might turn out to be as ephemeral as the predicted bloody battle of Baghdad. Still, we'll win the war eventually, probably soon. But there's plenty of fighting to do before it's over.

And we still have no idea how we're going to win the peace. The looting in Baghdad and Basra is predictable, but disturbing; the humanitarian aid challenge daunting; the political challenge greater still. How do we unite this terrorized, fragmented nation into a self-governing country?

While we try to answer those questions, we'll settle for toppling Saddam's symbols. The people of Iraq deserve their catharsis. And so do the soldiers, who've made a habit of destroying the symbols of Saddam everywhere they go, before they control his cities. They're putting their lives on the line in unimaginable circumstances; they're allowed to get giddy sometimes. For a minute on Wednesday a Marine hoisted a huge American flag onto the statue of Saddam, and used it to cover the dictator's face. Zahn knew to be horrified -- they've been warned about flying the American flag over Iraqi symbols; this is supposed to be an army of liberation, not occupation. There was "an audible gasp" at the Pentagon, CNN's Barbara Starr told us, and the stars and stripes came down quickly. But not before the scene could be broadcast all over Arab television.

It's understandably tough, in the chaos of war, for soldiers to keep track of our mission: that we're fighting to free the Iraqis, to let them govern their own country -- as long as we can pick their leaders, of course. But the antiwar left is probably even more confused by the week's events: All the images of exultant Iraqis, in Arbil and Basra and Baghdad, and U.S. soldiers, finally, with flowers in their helmets. It shouldn't be hard to know what to applaud, and what to hope for, however. We can cheer the Iraqis' liberation -- and gear up to fight to make sure it's authentic, as the Pentagon draws up plans for postwar, post-Saddam Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is warning Americans not to be too excited by the pictures of the fallen Saddam in Firdos Square, because there's plenty of warfare left to come. It's hard to know how to interpret that news. It's a welcome change from the cakewalk rhetoric that preceded the war, of course; I can't help wondering if it's an attempt to lower expectations, so that when the rest of the war goes quickly, it seems like even more of an accomplishment. Today, just for today, I'll surrender my skepticism and take them at their word, because I think the warnings happen to contain the truth. I'm glad I took a moment to watch Saddam fall this morning, to gather the resources for the fighting still to come.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq War