Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The scene was unforgettable. On April 9 2003, a huge American tank crawled towards Firdos (Paradise) Square in Baghdad, where a large statute of Saddam Hussein stood. The tank was part of a larger convoy traveling from the far end of the famous Saadun Street towards the square, flanked on both sides by the Ishtar Sheraton and the Palestine Meridien hotels. At the time, all satellite channels and media outlets, Arab and global, were focused on what was unfolding. On the opposite end of Saadun Street, at the Eastern Gate, dozens of people were holding placards and chanting slogans hailing the downfall of the regime.
The regime had not officially fallen until that time—nearly 4 o’clock p.m.—but as the tank approached the square an American soldier got out and confidently climbed towards the top of the Saddam Hussein statue and covered the face with an American flag. The crowd had grown; everyone was glued to this unprecedented scene. The Iraqi president was being overthrown and his regime was falling apart, and all the while the Iraqi minister of information was still bringing good news of victory through his latest radio broadcast.
The Americans got out of the tank once more to climb the statue again, but this time to adorn it with an Iraqi flag. This was the same flag that Saddam Hussein had created—with the three stars and the expression “Allahu Akhbar” in Saddam’s handwriting. The handwriting was poor, but like the emperor’s new clothes, no one dared to reveal the bitter truth to the Iraqi dictator. Then, in a theatrical scene not out of place in a black comedy, the tank pulled down the giant statue and 35 years of history collapsed.
Suddenly, the crowd cheered at the fall of their leader and his statue. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein—in the flesh—was in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad being carried on his bodyguard’s shoulders, while hundreds of people cheered, having not yet heard of the fall of the statue, the regime, and the state. They chanted, “With our blood and our spirit, we will sacrifice for Saddam”, but Saddam, and for the first time in 35 years, did not believe them. And so he disappeared, only to be found in a so-called spider hole months later.
Firdos Square may have witnessed the official death of the Saddam regime, but what happened afterwards was a series of tragedies that the Iraqis are still suffering from until this day. The poet and civil rights activist Ahmed Abdul Hussein gave his outlook in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, saying, “Maybe we were wrong in our depiction and diagnosis of the ten years that have passed. Our hopes were greater than what we could have expected or imagined. We believed there was a gap—the former regime—that if we were able to close, we would be closer to paradise. We are still searching for this paradise. It turns out that the gap that we imagined is much bigger in reality, and that the defects are much larger and run far deeper. We saw the former regime in isolation and everything else standing opposite it. We were deluded and the catastrophe is that the Americans were inflicted with the same illness. They did not understand the Iraqi people and did not lay the foundations for the story beyond the overthrow of the regime, which we all, including the Americans, portrayed as if it was the ultimate goal to aspire to.”
The process of change in Iraq may have started from Firdos Square, but the square itself is still a remnant of the past. No replacement monument has been erected in place of Saddam Hussein’s statue, so it seems that the ghost of the former president still haunts the square. Fawzi Atrushi, the deputy Iraqi minister of culture, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “a [replacement] statue is currently being worked on, a huge budget has been assigned for it, and it is now nearing completion.” Atrushi added, “Specialist companies have been contracted to complete the statue and erect it in the square within this year,” pointing out that “there have been some delays in the work but there is a determination to complete the statue so it can be put in place in Firdos Square.”
Iraqi memories of the events in Firdos Square vary significantly, including those of Hilal Al-Dilfi, Qais Al-Sharaa, and Bassam Hanna, who all work within a few meters of the famous site. Dilfi, sitting at a tiny desk on the side of the road at Firdos Square, where he works as a “a small-time money changer”, told AFP that “I am living in a good situation,” adding that “Under Saddam, it was so difficult, but these past 10 years have been good to me.” Yet Dilfi became more irate when he contended that with regards to the Iraqis, the Americans were no different to Saddam until they withdrew at the end of 2011. However, reminiscing on the fall of Saddam’s statue, he said, “Let’s be honest, without the Americans, Saddam would have been here for 100 years!”
On the other side of Firdos Square there is Qais Al-Sharaa, who seems to have more mixed emotions. In 2002 Sharaa was able to open a barbershop, serving Saddam Hussein’s associates at the time, including senior officers and ministers. As the American troops advanced on Baghdad, Sharaa cut his business down to the bare essentials for fear of being looted, then closed down completely to watch Saddam’s statue fall on television. He told AFP, “I can tell you that we did not want Saddam, he did not help this country . . . But I felt sad that Iraq was invaded by America.” Sharaa went on to say, “They removed Saddam, but they damaged the country.”
As for Bassam Hanna, further down Saadun Street and a short walk from Sharaa’s barbershop, he worked as a cook for US troops at a training camp for Iraqi forces, south of Baghdad, for six years. Hanna openly expressed his fondness for the Americans and displayed a certificate of appreciation—awarded to him by the US forces—which he now keeps under the counter of the small grocery store he works in. He said, “They taught me how to be professional, how to improve my work.” The early years of the US invasion were good for Hanna but later on violence against the Iraqi Christian community increased and many of his family members fled the country. Now Hanna too is looking to leave Iraq, to live with the rest of his family who have moved to the US, stressing that “there is nothing for me here.”