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Art-loving Iraqis fear war on monuments

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Baghdad, Iraq --- They're tearing down statues again in Baghdad. But this time, there are no celebrating U.S. troops involved.

Iraq's zealous DeBaathification Commission is seeking to wipe out any trace of Saddam Hussein's old party in the capital's vast array of public art. But some Iraqis say they are going too far and the effort has highlighted bitter divisions over the country's past.

Government crews recently dismantled two large monuments.

"We just want to tell [Iraqis] that the Baathists are part of a dirty history that will not come again," said Khalid al-Shami, director of the Culture and Education Department of the government's DeBaathification Commission. "No more Baath."

But art and its political significance are in the eye of the beholder. Baghdad has a vibrant artistic heritage and, like most capitals, is endowed with dozens of monuments. There is an unknown soldier's memorial as well as sculptures depicting tales from "1001 Arabian Nights." There are memorials to dead poets and Arab warriors.

Even in neighborhoods where Saddam is reviled, many Iraqis still identify with the nation's struggles --- whether against Iran or the United States --- under his regime. Much like the Confederate flag in the United States, Iraqi symbols can mean different things to different people.

On Mustansiriyah Square, a wide traffic circle in northern Baghdad, a stone panel perhaps 30 feet tall is now blank after workers last week removed a relief sculpture that honored Iraqi soldiers captured by Iran during the war in the 1980s.

Staffers on the DeBaathification Commission said the relief taught hatred of a neighboring country, Iran. The centerpiece of the work was a muscular Iraqi prisoner being quartered by Iranian trucks.

However, to some Iraqis, already suspicious of close ties between their new government and Shiite Muslims in Iran, the statue was an important historical marker.

"It's an irresponsible act. It's a sign of how much mess we have in Baghdad and I think the main reason behind removing the monument is the influence of Iran," said Mohammed Amir al-Obeidi, 41, a teacher and Iran war veteran in the Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Adhamiya. He speculated --- as alleged in a newspaper --- that people want to turn a profit by melting the relief for scrap.

"Removing the monument or not will not cancel what we lived through," he said. "People will remember what happened whether there is a monument or not."

But a Shiite former POW was glad to see the sculpture disappear. He said that Saddam exaggerated the mistreatment by Iranian captors. Shiites were persecuted by Saddam's Sunni-Muslim dominated regime.

"I'm happy Iraqis toppled that monument. We want to clean our hearts from the hatred and malice against Iranians," said Hythem Saadi al-Zubaidi, 42.

The first statue ordered dismantled by the DeBaathification Commission was "March of the Baath Party." On a pedestal shaped like the bow of a ship, the statue showed an Iraqi man, woman and youth in the style of the old Soviet monuments. That has its defenders, as well.

Omar al-Damaluji, an Iraqi politician and art collector, said the late, respected Iraqi artist Khalid al-Rahal sculpted the work and only gave it the Baathist name to ensure that it could be displayed.

"[Now] that they have started this, then you will not see a single statue in the city," he worried.

A couple of days before the monument destruction started, vandals or militias blew up the pedestal under a giant bust of the city's 8th century founder, Abu Jaafar al-Mansour. The government denies any involvement but it left art-conscious Iraqis afraid of a war on monuments. By the end of last week, Iraqi media reported that officials in the Ministry of Culture were asking for all monument destruction to cease.

Al-Shami said the ministry has a representative on his monument review committee who objects to the demolition work. He is seeking to have her replaced for someone less "Baathist."

He is pressing for government permission to remove Baghdad's largest monuments, some of them in unexpected places. Deep in the fortified Green Zone, home to U.S. and Iraqi officials, still stand giant renditions of Saddam's hands bearing crossed swords. The DeBaathification Commission wants those removed.

A colorful mosaic of wolf-like monsters rings the grand lobby of the Baghdad Convention Center, home to the U.S. military's press operations and the Iraqi National Assembly. It depicts the monsters with the U.S. flag attacking stoic Iraqi troops, who are supported by doves of peace and Scud missiles. It is abstract enough to go unnoticed by many Americans, but it carries regime slogans in Arabic and portrayals of famous Saddam landmarks.

The 39-year-old al-Shami, who said he spent a year in one of Saddam's jails for penning underground essays, said he wanted the mosaic taken down.

He pledges that some monuments will survive, including the somber and graceful war martyrs' monument, made of two turquoise half-domes, though some Baathist engravings will be removed.

And the scenes from "1001 Arabian Nights" will also be preserved, promised al-Shami associate Akram Sharqawi.

"Just like the Americans respect the Statue of Liberty," he joked, "we respect Ali Baba."

Cox Newspapers news assistants Ali M.A. Abbas and Leo Hamdi contributed to this article.

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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