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April 10, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 5




global perspective

What the cheering was all about

by Tom Roberts, editor of NCR

I cheered with everyone else when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Firdos Square in central Baghdad. The square is next to the Palestine Hotel, which is across the street from the Al Fanar Hotel, where I stayed during a trip to Iraq four years ago this month.

Cheering the downfall of Saddam Hussein by someone who has persistently editorialized against the war might seem disingenuous or downright hypocritical. Perhaps there is some of that in my reaction. But the question never was about whether Saddam should stay but rather whether war was the best way to go about it.

I cheered the toppling of that statue as symbol of the toppling of a tyrant because I cheer whenever oppressors are overturned. Sadly, too many times I have witnessed the overthrow of dictators who were propped up by U.S. money and politics and whose military leaders were trained on U.S. bases.

I cheered, too, because I could imagine what a relief it must be to literally destroy the suffocating manifestations of tyranny. Four years ago, the drive through the desert from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad required a stop at the border, a lonely outpost where we spent several hours in a large room dominated by a wall size portrait of Saddam. “For the uninitiated,” I wrote at the time, “it is a foretaste of what is to come: Saddam the ubiquitous … the iconography of a dictatorship in which severe punishment — life imprisonment or death — is constitutionally provided for criticizing or speaking ill of the president.”

I cheered, but I knew that the constant camera shot on the statue, standing, roped, beflagged and finally toppled, was the easy shot. It was war gone right.

But the longer the cameras stayed on that scene of the small crowd in the square, the less we knew about other matters such as the hospitals that the International Committee for the Red Cross claim are overwhelmed with civilian casualties. We knew little about the numbers of Iraqi dead, civilians and soldiers. When will we know?

I was intrigued that the Pentagon estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqi fighters died in the early stages of the battle for Baghdad. How many were killed in the desert, in all the battles that went on in the little towns and the cities between Basra and Baghdad?

And I cheered while mulling the words of Fr. Frank Winters in an interview with our Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd that will appear in our April 18 issue, “The whole thing is evil, whether it produces good is completely irrelevant — there is no excuse for invading a country that is not waging war with you.”

I know the camera was unable to focus on the endless sea of youngsters who died in hospital wards in Iraq long before this latest phase of the war started, victims of the U.S. inspired sanctions. The United Nations, in a painfully deliberate and documented report, estimated conservatively that as many as 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died as a direct result of the sanctions.

The cameras have yet to catch up with the middle class professionals, the engineers, airline pilots, teachers, doctors and lawyers who ended up driving cabs or acting as government minders because of the effects of the sanctions. Some sold their personal belongings, their libraries and heirlooms to stay fed and to educate their children.

Are they cheering? Do they harbor a secret contempt born of circumstances for which their liberators were responsible?

On TV Tuesday night, writer David Halberstam said that by invading Iraq, the United States had punched into a hornet’s nest. He was referring to the wider Middle East region and the uncertainty of what will follow in the wake of the invasion.

The cameras finally had to cut from the statue. It was down. People had danced on it. No one quite knew what was next.


An aside. Firdos Square is next to the Palestine Hotel, which has a top-floor bar (that four years ago was well-stocked with 7-Up and orange soda but not many alcoholic beverages) wrapped with walls of windows that gave a panoramic view of the city. When I was there, one could not take photos of government buildings, and photos in general were not allowed without a government minder present. However, one afternoon a waiter in the bar opened a door on to a small side roof and allowed me to take shots of the city.

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