x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

In Baghdad square, varied life paths since Saddam Hussein statue felled

In the decade since the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously toppled in Firdos Suqare, tens of thousands have been killed, the American military presence rose to 180,000 troops.

Iraqi workers garden near the pedestal from which the statue of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was famously toppled in the garden of Firdos Square in Baghdad.
Iraqi workers garden near the pedestal from which the statue of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was famously toppled in the garden of Firdos Square in Baghdad.

BAGHDAD // It was an iconic moment, viewed by people around the world on television, that came to symbolise the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

But residents have competing memories of the decade since the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously toppled in Firdos Square, among them three men: Hilal Al Dilfi, Qais Al Sharaa and Bassam Hanna, who work just metres apart.

In the years since, tens of thousands have been killed, the American military presence rose to 170,000 troops before the US withdrew completely, and countless Iraqis fled the country, fearing for their lives or in search of better opportunities.

In that time, Mr Al Dilfi, Mr Al Sharaa and Mr Hanna have lived very different lives, reflecting competing histories of Iraq as the country marks a decade since the US-led entry into Baghdad.

Sitting at his tiny desk on the square in central Baghdad, Mr Al Hilal, a small-time money changer, is unequivocal: life now is better than under the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam, who was eventually executed in December 2006.

As a Shiite living in the slum neighbourhood of Sadr City, he can finally worship freely; his three sons have bright futures, two of them with advanced degrees, and his only daughter is married; he is now living in a bigger home.

"I am living in a good situation," he said. "Under Saddam, it was so difficult, but these past 10 years have been good to me.

"Saddam was crushing us, our freedoms - especially us, the Shiites."

Mr Al Dilfi voiced anger at the years-long US military presence in Iraq, which concluded only in December 2011, arguing that US troops were as bad for Iraqis as Saddam had been.

But, he added: "Let's be honest, without the Americans, Saddam would have been here for 100 years."

Still, watching Saddam's statue fall remains an unblemished memory for him.

"People were running, just to hit the statue, some people were clapping, others were crying," he said. "Me, I felt a sense of happiness, of well-being."

Across the square, Mr Al Sharaa has more mixed emotions.

A paramedic by training, he set up shop as a hairdresser in 2002, serving the Saddam-era elite, from senior military officers to ministers.

As American troops advanced in Baghdad, he pared down his shop to the bare essentials for fear of looters, before later closing up entirely and watching the statue fall on television.

"I can tell you that we did not want Saddam, he did not help this country," Mr Al Sharaa said. "But I felt sad that Iraq was invaded by America."

He recalled how American soldiers would regularly visit his salon, but never took off their body armour or let go of their rifles, even as he cut their hair.

"There was no trust," he said. "They did not like us, and we did not like them.

"They removed Saddam, but they damaged the country. After 10 years now, I can tell you they were here not for the benefit of Iraqis, but for their own benefit. They were not coming for liberation, they were like raiders."

Overall, Mr Al Sharaa recalled the past 10 years as bittersweet.

Down Saadun Street, a short walk from Mr Al Sharaa's salon, Mr Hanna had distinctly different recollections of American forces.

Mr Hanna, a Christian who now works in a small grocery store, was a cook for US troops at an Iraqi army training complex south-east of Baghdad for six years.

Somewhat unusually among Iraqis, he openly expressed a fondness for American soldiers, quickly pulling out a certificate of appreciation he was awarded by US forces that he kept under the store's counter.

"They taught me how to be professional, how to improve my work," he said.

For Mr Hanna, 35, whose arms are covered in tattoos of crosses and the likeness of Jesus Christ, the early years after the invasion were good to him.

But then violence against Iraq's Christian minority increased, and he and his relatives received threats from militants, spurring many family members to flee the country.

Now, Mr Hanna is looking to leave, to join the rest of his family in the United States. "There is nothing for me here," he said.