The world press on the war

There was rich symbolism in the way Iraqis celebrated the fall of Baghdad. Here's how to decode it.


Compiled by Laura McClure
April 10, 2003 10:40PM (UTC)

Qatar, article in Al-Jazeera

The Arab world was in shock and denial on Thursday after Baghdad fell almost without a fight, bringing to an end President Saddam Hussein's 24-year rule. ...

The fact that there was little resistance to the US troops that entered Baghdad from all directions sparked Arab speculation that senior leaders might have struck a deal with the Americans.

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"I still cannot believe that the Americans entered Baghdad this easily. If a deal was struck with Saddam, then that proves that he staked his people and the hopes of all Arabs in order to survive," said Yahya Kahla, a teacher in Sanaa, capital of Yemen...

Palestinians watching the Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi satellite stations were stunned at seeing the giant Saddam statue tumble in a Baghdad square after the rapid collapse of Iraq's military. ...

Ali Jaddah, an engineer, said: "It's a day of shame. On this day Arabs have become slaves. The only man who dared to say 'no' to the Americans' face has vanished today. What is left is a bunch of bowing and scraping Arab leaders."

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Many Arabs equate the Palestinians' plight under Israeli occupation with the Iraqis' new situation under US and British military invasion. Anti-war banners have often featured joined Iraqi and Palestinian flags. ...

But some people said Saddam's fall should be a warning to other Arab leaders. "What happened in Baghdad must be taken into consideration by Arab rulers because the people are the ones who defend a country, and if they are tortured and their honour is violated then they will be the first to abandon it," said Hussein Taher, a 37-year-old private sector employee in Saudi Arabia. ...

When an American marine placed a U.S. flag over the statue's face, a commentator on Al Jazeera, the most widely watched Arab satellite TV station, remarked: "Everything that happens from now on will have an American smell."

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United Kingdom, article in the BBC News

There was rich symbolism in the way Iraqis celebrated the fall of Baghdad - some hurled shoes while others brandished small clay discs. What do these actions and symbols represent?

Hitting with shoes:

...Locals vented their anger at Saddam Hussein by attacking effigies of the man - with their shoes. The imagery is strong - shoes are a symbol of "dirt and degradation" in the Arab world, says Professor Faleh Jabar, a writer on Iraqi culture.

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"Going into someone's house or a mosque, you would always take your shoes off first. Shoes are used to beat servants, thieves, prostitutes; it indicates servility. Were you to beat your children, this would be done with a stick or the hand, but never shoes."

Clay discs:

Some of the most fervent celebrants were Baghdad's Shia Muslims, who had been oppressed by Saddam Hussein's regime. The clay discs they were brandishing are called "turbas" and are made from the sacred soil of Najaf, where Imam Ali, the founder of the Shia movement, is buried.

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A praying Shia will place the disc in front of him to stop his head touching the ground as he bows to pray. Although turbas were not banned from sight by the regime, "people did not show them because that would be tantamount to political provocation," says Mr. Jabar. ...

Flags:

Green flags and "old Iraqi" flags were waved. Green is simply the colour of Islam while the Iraqi flags in question have not been seen since before the last Gulf War. In 1991 Saddam Hussein re-drew the flag to include the words "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great - in Arabic script....

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Thumbs-up:

Much has already been made of the thumbs-up gesture that British and American soldiers have received from "welcoming" Iraqis. Unlike in many western cultures, in the Middle East the thumbs-up can be an insult, roughly translating as "up yours". But the US Army's Defense Language Institute says that after the first Gulf War, the gesture was adopted by some Iraqis, along with the ok sign, as a "symbol of co-operation and freedom".

Turkey, Ilnur Cevik in the Turkish Daily News

The Americans have got what they wanted: The people of Baghdad have turned out in their thousands to welcome the American troops creating scenes of massive jubilation. They are offering cheers and flowers to the U.S. troops which were the scenes those in Washington wanted to see from the very start of this war but did not get for quite sometime.

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As we predicted in our editorials in the past, the Americans and the British did launch their war against Saddam Hussein, did finish off a major portion of the Iraqi army in quite a short period of time and have entered Baghdad...

Those who advised the Turkish government that all this would not happen are now looking extremely stupid but that is really nothing compared to the incredible political and economic losses they have inflicted on our country by preventing active Turkish involvement in the war and thus leaving Turkey out of the Iraqi equation...

But the liberators now have a duty of preventing looting and restoring law and order across Iraq. We fear that the coalition forces have been too slow to respond to looting in Basra, which should not be repeated in other parts of Iraq. We feel here the Americans should organize the Iraqis quickly into a police force and enforce order. Maybe this is where the peshmerga fighters and other opposition forces can be used effectively.

We had written in the past that Turkey should have been actively involved in the Iraq war and our troops should have entered Baghdad along with the Americans... Wouldn't it have looked good if Turkish soldiers attended the upcoming Friday prayers in Baghdad along with their Iraqi brothers? Wouldn't that have been something very positive for the coalition forces as well? Shame on those who prevented all this.

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Israel, Nathan Guttman in Haaretz

Statements made Wednesday by U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who said that countries in possession of weapons of mass destruction should "learn the lesson" of the American attack on Iraq, may be an indication of the hopes of the conservative stream in the U.S. administration, but don't necessarily signal the direction America will take for now. ...

Was the campaign against Iraq only the beginning in preparation for a show of military might against other states in possession of WMD, as hinted by Bolton; or will the U.S. now take the time to demonstrate its ability to resolve such crises through diplomatic means as well?

The "axis of evil" about which Bush spoke more than a year ago now includes only two states - Iran and North Korea, both of which are refusing at this stage to depart willingly from the list...

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If with regard to North Korea, the U.S. believes in a diplomatic solution, when it comes to Iran, the Americans believe in change from within. ...

The third country that is worrying the U.S. is Syria - officially not a part of the "axis of evil," but accused by the Americans of possessing chemical weapons.

U.S.-Syria relations are at a crossroads, and the American reaction to Damascus' actions during the war in Iraq depend, to a large extent, on the next steps of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The U.S. has a long list of charges against Syria - support for Hezbollah, the granting of freedom of action to terror groups, giving patronage to senior Iraqi regime officials - but is still hoping that threats will be enough to change the direction Damascus has taken till now.

John Bolton's statements, however, could be significant in this context: If there is one country on the list of American targets that should take fright from the display of American force in Iraq, it is Syria.

United Kingdom, Charles Clover in the Financial Times

Hay Al Ansar, on the outskirts of Najaf in Iraq, was glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party government, when the city was seized by US forces last week.

But they appear to be just as terrified, if not more so, of their new rulers -- a little-known Iraqi militia backed by the US special forces and headquartered in a compound nearby.

The Iraqi Coalition of National Unity (ICNU), which appeared in the city last week riding on US special forces vehicles, has taken to looting and terrorising their neighbourhood with impunity, according to most residents.

"They steal and steal," said a man living near the Medresa al Tayif school, calling himself Abu Zeinab. "They threaten us, saying: 'We are with the Americans, you can do nothing to us'."

Sa'ida al Hamed, another resident, said she witnessed looting by the ICNU and other armed gangs in the city, which lost its police force when the government fled last week. One man told a US army translator on Monday that he was taken out of his house and beaten by ICNU forces when he refused to give them his car. They took it anyway.

If true, the testimony of residents reveals a darker side to US policy in Iraq. In their distaste for peacekeeping and eagerness to hand the ruling of Iraq back to Iraqis, US forces are in danger of losing the peace as rapidly as they have won the war.

US special forces said they were looking into the complaints, which had been passed to them by US military sources. They declined, however, to discuss the formation of the group, how its members were chosen, or who they were.

The head of the ICNU, who says he is a former colonel in the Iraqi artillery forces who has been working with the underground opposition since 1996, announced on Tuesday that he was acting mayor of Najaf, and his group had taken over administration of the city.

Other Iraqi exiles, brought in by the CIA and US special forces to help assemble a local government over the next few days, say the militia is out of control.

"They are nobody, and nobody has ever heard of them, all they have is US backing," said an Arab journalist ...

The allegations against the ICNU threaten to undermine much of the goodwill built up by US forces among the citizens of Najaf, who still cheer troops driving through the city. In an effort to curb rampant looting, US forces have begun to patrol at night ...

The city's political rivalries appear to be affecting humanitarian assistance. US special forces have objected to certain Shia leaders distributing food aid, for fear of their ties to Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Essam Al-Ghalib in the Arab News

Six days after the "liberation: of Najaf, Iraqis of all ages continue to pack the corridors of Saddam Hussein General Hospital.

They are mostly victims of unexploded munitions that are strewn throughout various residential neighborhoods -- along streets, in family homes, in school playgrounds, in the fields belonging to farms ...

US forces have been using cluster bombs against Iraqi soldiers. But the majority of the victims are civilians, mostly children curious about the small shiny objects which are the same size as a child's hand.

Cluster bombs, as explained by an administrator at the hospital, have been dropped by the hundred. They are supposed to explode on impact. However, many do not, and lie on the street exposed to the elements.

A young Iraqi in Najaf told Arab News yesterday: "They are everywhere, and they are going off periodically. We don't even have to touch them -- they just go off by themselves, especially as the temperature rises throughout the day." ...

Dozens of these unexploded cluster bombs were lying around. The US military had been along the street and cordoned off areas with plastic tape marked "Mines" -- but only in English.

Back at Saddam Hussein General Hospital, a seven-year-old boy, the skin burned off his legs, was being turned away by the doctors. His father, distraught and with a look of desperation on his face, told Arab News as he held his son in his arms: "They say his injuries are minor compared with others here. They say that they can't waste their medication on him. They won't even give him pain killers." ...

The head of the Pediatric Department told Arab News that because of the sanctions of the last 12 years, the hospitals are in a state of near disrepair and medication is scarce.

"A few days after the shelling ended, some American medical services people came to see the hospital," he said. "They were surprised that we were open with the little medication we have. They promised they would come back with supplies, but we are still waiting. We haven't had enough electricity to run half of our equipment, our generators are old and unreliable and we have lost power several times." ...

No one Arab News spoke to was celebrating the reported news of Saddam Hussein's death. "I don't believe what we are hearing," said a 42-year-old hotel receptionist.

"Even if he is dead, it's not worth the price our children and families have paid," he added.

Saddam Hussein General Hospital alone has seen 307 deaths and treated 920 injuries. Of those, only 20 of the dead and 50 of the injured were soldiers.

India, Gurcharan Das in the Times of India

Whether it is the continuing ugly massacres in Kashmir or this dreadful war in Iraq, the truth is that far too many of the trouble spots in the world are the consequence of the frontiers created ad hoc by Britain's wicked old imperialism and the legacy of its divide and quit policy.

Christopher Hitchens, the author of "Why Orwell Matters," points this out in an elegant essay in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1916, it was one Sir Mark Sykes who divided the Middle East into Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan. Six years later, Sir Percy Cox carved Kuwait out of Iraq. The year before the Irish were told they could either have an independent or a united state but not both. And as we know, it was Sir Cyril Radcliffe's pen that carved a Pakistani state in 1947 out of what had formerly been India. More recently, Lords Carrington and Owen of the British Foreign Office advanced the ethnic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and before Nelson Mandela came out of jail, the same Carrington wanted to split South Africa three-ways into a white Afrikaner area, a Zulu reservation, and a free for all among the others.

Marya Mannes captured this historic legacy with wonderful irony in a poem that no one reads any more. She wrote: "Borders are scratched across the hearts of men/ By strangers with a calm judicial pen,/ And when the borders bleed we watch with dread/ The lines of ink across the map turn red" ...

But for us in India it was Auden's poem, 'Partition', that truly brought out our sweet sourness over Mountbatten's disengaging mission: "Unbiased at least he was when/ he arrived on his mission,/ Having never set eyes on this/ land he was called to partition/ Between two peoples fanatically at odds,/ With their different diets and/ incompatible gods./ Time, they had briefed him in/ London, is short. It's too late/ For mutual reconciliation or/ rational debate:/The only solution now lies in separation."

There certainly were Muslim losers in Palestine and elsewhere, but the big losers were the many people of the other creeds and those who believed in modernity and transcended tribalism. It is the same in today's India where amidst the fanaticism of the Hindu nationalists and the Muslim terrorists, the losers are the ordinary people who want to get on with their lives. This unhappy British colonial legacy not only holds lessons for imperial America in Iraq -- when its time comes to quit it ought not to botch things -- but it is a reminder to all of us on the sub-continent that our borders emerged from scornful bureaucratic pens, and deserve to be treated with similar contempt.


Compiled by Laura McClure

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