Ecstatic, for today

Iraqis who have been divided in exile unite, if only briefly, to celebrate their country's release from "the choking hand of Saddam."

Published April 10, 2003 11:49PM (EDT)

Baan Alsinawi, a 40-year-old Iraqi-American in Washington, tried to concentrate on her job as a network engineer today, but all she could think about was the 40-foot-tall metal statue of Saddam Hussein falling to the ground in Baghdad's Firdos Square. So she left her office early and went home to watch TV, surf the Internet, take calls from thrilled friends and glory in a moment she feared she'd never see. Before the war she was ambivalently against it; when it began she was terrified; but just for today, she's ecstatic.

"I'm allowing myself to be very happy today and to enjoy the moment that I've been waiting for, for way too long," she says. "I do not want to spoil it by thinking about reality. The reasons I oppose the war are still there. None of that has changed. But this is a very happy day for every Iraqi. Nobody can possibly imagine the grip of fear, the choking hand of Saddam being gone. The symbol of that statue falling down ... I'm planning a party. It's going to be one of the biggest ones that has ever happened."

For a few moments Wednesday, the ideological divisions between Iraqi exiles around the world broke down like that totem of tyranny in Baghdad, uniting many in exultation and relief. "It's crossing a psychological barrier," says Laith Kubba, a University of Baghdad graduate and senior program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "People have been freed in their own minds of Saddam. Does it mean that there is going to be peace, law and order? That's a different question. It can go wrong, that's a very real possibility. But this time Saddam is outside the equation."

As evening fell in Baghdad, crowds of Iraqi exiles in London, England, and in Dearborn, Mich., staged impromptu public celebrations. Others relished the moment in private, enjoying the respite from weeks of excruciating anxiety. As 47-year-old Zaineb Istrabadi says, "Right now, at this moment, we have every right to be overjoyed."

Istrabadi, a professor at Indiana University, is a friend of Alsinawi's who also opposed the war, but was "jubilant" when she saw Saddam fall. "But what really made me sob was hearing the crowds cheer for Iraq rather than for Saddam," she says. "We've been hearing for decades the cheer, 'O Saddam, for you we sacrifice our blood and our souls.' To hear them say, 'For you, O Iraq, we sacrifice our blood and our souls,' was very moving to me." She was planning on driving to Chicago to celebrate with the Iraqi community there.

Not surprisingly, it's the organized Iraqi resistance who seem to feel the most triumphant. "Today, for the first time, you see in Baghdad the Iraqi people are showing their real feelings and what they want, which is liberty," says Aziz Al-Taee, chairman of the Iraqi American Council. "This is the most important point in the history of modern Iraq when they took that statue down. That statue represents dictatorship, tyranny and oppression."

For Al-Taee, the celebration feels like a political vindication. "All these people, the Arab countries surrounding Iraq, the human shields, they've been saying they want to protect the Iraqi people. Masses are demonstrating to say that they want to defend the Iraqi people from occupying forces, and then the Iraqi people came out and welcomed them as liberating forces."

He continued, "Every day for the last 20 years I've been exposing Saddam's regime and the suffering of the Iraqi people. I've taken a lot of heat from a lot of groups in this country, Arab Americans calling us traitors and puppets of the CIA. In 1983, Saddam's secret agents videotaped me talking about Saddam and brought it back to Iraq, and the regime put my family under house arrest. All these people were saying we were not telling the truth.

"Now we are seeing what Iraqi-Americans have been talking about, our people's ambition for freedom. We don't have to speak. The people are speaking for us."

Of course, for those resolutely opposed to an American occupation of Iraq, there's a melancholy edge to their happiness. "It's a very complex feeling," says Sinan Antoon, a 35-year-old Harvard graduate student from Baghdad. "I desired this moment for most of my adult life, but unfortunately while I feel joy seeing his statue come down, there's always an American tank in the vicinity. The whole scene was symbolic, because you had the soldier put the flag on Saddam's statue. That, I'm afraid, is symbolic of the price of bringing the statue down.

"The crowds are cheering that the regime is gone, they're not cheering the advancing soldiers," he continues. "And to me it's obscene when Brigadier General Brooks in his briefing shows some soldiers shaking hands with a 9-year-old and says they're tasting liberty for the first time. What do these 9-year-olds know of what's to come? Do they know that American corporations are like hyenas gathering around Iraq?"

Yet others saw nothing foreboding in the American presence. "I watched the statue of Saddam being pulled down," says Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the 50-year-old Imam of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, N.Y. "That was a very great moment. It is symbolic that the government of Saddam has lost control of Baghdad and the south and most of the north. It's symbolic of the Iraqis themselves. They couldn't pull the statue down by themselves, but with help from the American forces they were successful. It is symbolic that by helping each other, the results are better."

Haeder Muhammed, 32, the head of transportation at the Islamic Center's school, adds, "I've been in front of the TV and the computer all day. It's incredible. It's almost like a dream. We never imagined to see such images. You see something you couldn't believe would happen. I can't express myself. For Iraqis here, we don't feel as much as they must feel it there seeing the statue of Saddam pulled down.

"Even though I haven't been Iraq for 13 years, I still remember that no one could move against Saddam when he was in power," says Muhammed. "It means a lot to Iraqi people when they see that."

Thus while Iraqis know that their country's woes will not disappear with a statue's destruction, giddiness is crowding out fear for the first time since the war began.

"I've been schizophrenic, wondering if relatives are being killed, having the country that you've chosen to be a part of obliterate the country you're originally from," says Istrabadi. "I've been angry at everybody involved. I have relatives from whom I haven't heard. We're all going to sit around waiting for our phones to ring to hear whether they're alright or hurt or worse."

But even the terrible anxiety is no match for Istrabadi's overwhelming feeling of triumph. "Frankly, at the moment all I can think about is that Iraq is free of these people," she says.

Louise Witt contributed to this story.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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