As I write this, 100 or so Iraqis are gathered in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, trying to tear down an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. Three men have set up a ladder, climbed up the pillar, and draped a long rope, noose style, around the statue’s neck. Now they have climbed down, and a few others, including one very beefy fellow, are swinging away at the pillar with a hammer. The task seems futile. The pillar is about 30 feet high and 6 feet or so in diameter. The statue stands about 30 feet on top of it. A couple of American Abrams tanks are loitering about; they could topple the thing in a minute, but they seem disinclined, for the moment—leaving the task, as they should, to the Iraqis.
I am reminded of 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Baltic nations took their own hammers to their most prominent statues of Lenin. Much could be discerned about national style from the effort. In Lithuania, the most emotional of the republics, the crowd just went at it, using all tools at hand, bringing down Vladimir Ilyich with great gusto. In Latvia, some engineers assumed the task, judging the statue’s material, pulling up a crane, and taking it down very systematically. In Estonia, the town leaders coolly hired a Finnish firm to do the job.
So, what are we to make of this fitful flailing in downtown Baghdad? The crowd is still milling around Firdos Square, but they have stopped trying to topple Saddam’s monument. And now, here comes the American tank. The Iraqis are now tying a steel chain, no doubt U.S.-supplied, to the statue, and the Abrams M1 will serve as the toppler. Oh, no; it’s getting worse. Marines are getting up on the statue to pull it down themselves. One of them has draped an American flag over Saddam’s head. What a moron! The very picture of neo-colonialism, which will make front pages all over the Arab world. Now he’s taking off the American flag. No doubt, someone from Centcom, watching CNN, phoned the officer on the scene to chew him out and remind him of the orders against such displays.
A big sigh. Is this scene a sad symbol of the Iraqi people’s helplessness, after 30 years of brutal dictatorship, to master their own fate? Is this an equally sad symbol of America’s inability to liberate without conquering? Will the Iraqis need outside forces to oust not merely Saddam but the figments of his rule? Will the Americans help them without too strong a stench of arrogance?