Hope and regret linger 19 years after Saddam Hussein's statue torn down

Symbolic end of brutal dictatorship was followed by spiralling violence that claimed lives of at least 209,000 Iraqi civilians

Iraqi civilians and US soldiers watch the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
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The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, became a symbol of the Iraq war that haunts many until this day.

Saturday marks the 19th anniversary of the destruction of the statue by US forces who had arrived in the capital after a month-long advance across Iraqi territory.

It was a moment witnessed by millions on television. But it quickly came to symbolise different things to viewers.

“I remember this moment vividly, it was a moment of joy and happiness that brought for us hope for a new future, especially since my family was living in exile due to their political affiliation against the Baath regime,” Enas Jabbar, a human-rights activist, told The National.

“We suffered from persecution by the Baathists, especially my father and mother. Personally, no matter how much crisis and setbacks we are going through today, they are much easier than Saddam's regime.”

Ms Jabbar believes that “freedom comes with a price” and Iraqis are still “paying it and will continue to make sacrifices until they reach the level they wish for".

For some, scenes of Iraqis cheering the toppling of the statue showed that the US-led invasion was justified, liberating the country from Saddam's dictatorship.

For others, it was a sign of deep humiliation, the final insult after an illegal invasion.

Once the statue was ripped down by the 90-tonne pulling force of a US M88 armoured recovery vehicle, the watching crowd jumped on it and beat it with their shoes.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it was a “great day” for Iraqis.

But fighting was still going on in Baghdad. The extent to which the toppling of the statue was staged by US forces quickly became a burning issue.

Lt Col Brian McCoy, the US officer who ordered his forces to help topple the statue, would later say he felt it was an important historical moment and was aware that journalists were gathered nearby.

Saddam had gone into hiding and Iraq was already sliding into lawlessness.

For Dhia Al Hindi, a prominent anti-government protester in the southern city of Karbala, the statue's fall inspired him to try to repair the damage that the Baathists and other political parties had done to Iraq.

“My generation has suffered immensely because of Saddam and the current political elite. We have no future. So, since 2012 I have been protesting for our rights,” he told The National.

“The fall of the statue pushed me to want to do better for my country.”

Iraqi President Barham Salih acknowledged the need to improve the country's situation in a statement issued to mark the anniversary.

"There is an urgent need today to meet the Iraqis' demand for rational governance, and to address the structural defects in the system of governance," Mr Salih said.

"The major transformations achieved after the change in 2003 cannot be underestimated, but failures must be acknowledged and cannot be justified only in the legacy of the previous regime."

A high-cost invasion with little return

A search for weapons of mass destruction — Tony Blair and George Bush’s much touted justification for an invasion — would find only traces of chemical weapons, mostly aged and unusable shells described by a post-war US report as “not militarily significant".

Mr Blair had previously insisted, in a now famous speech to the British Parliament in March 2003, that Iraq's weapons programmes were active and comprised thousands of tonnes of WMDs hidden in huge stockpiles.

Coalition forces, mainly US and British, were greatly overstretched and a massive insurgency erupted, in part driven by former soldiers who had been dismissed from Iraq's disbanded army and members of the ousted Baath party.

The invaders had planned for a number of scenarios: a wave of displaced civilians, disease outbreaks and Saddam's troops setting fire to oil wells, among others.

But they were completely unprepared for a surge in armed resistance and sectarian violence, although it was a risk described in pre-war US intelligence assessments.

Shootings and abuses of civilians became commonplace. Many were killed at checkpoints manned by overzealous or nervous coalition soldiers.

More abuses would follow, most notoriously at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.

Politicians in Washington bickered over whether Iraq should be rebuilt and guided to democracy, a view held by Mr Bush and Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator given the power to rule by decree between May 2003 and June 2004.

Tasked with helping establish an Iraqi interim government, largely made up of Iraqi exiles, and overseeing initial reconstruction, Mr Bremer pressed the US president for a longer term commitment that he likened to “a marathon”. Critics said it would be an extended occupation.

Others believed the US had largely completed its mission by removing Saddam, a view shared by Bush administration officials Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, who told Congress: “Iraq can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”

Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld’s deputy, would later say the primary goal of the war should have been “safeguarding Americans from the threats posed by Saddam’s regime” rather than building democracy.

Mr Bremer said substantial reconstruction funds would be needed, in the end totalling $60 billion of US funds and $146bn in Iraqi funds out of a total war cost of around $1 trillion. The vast majority of the cost comprised security expenditure as coalition forces and reconstruction operations were threatened across most of Iraq.

Lack of agreement on the way forward, what Mr Bremer called “bifurcated” pre-war planning between government agencies, led to ad hoc and inefficient reconstruction plans that wasted US and Iraqi funds.

Most Iraqi cities still lack a proper power supply, sanitation and clean water.

Iraq became a quagmire for the US and British-led force, which found itself partnering Iran-backed Shiite parties while simultaneously fighting Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents, who were soon reinforced by Al Qaeda.

Sectarian violence at the hands of these groups caused a descent into chaos. More than 209,000 civilian deaths have been documented by Iraq Body Count. The NGO counted more than 3,000 in November 2006 alone, the worst month of violence recorded.

Repeated attempts by the Coalition and the UN to jump-start a political process failed and corruption spiralled out of control, with little oversight of oil revenue and reconstruction funds, documented by damning US audits later in the war.

Iraq enjoyed a brief period of relative calm after a Shiite militia ceasefire and the near total defeat of Al Qaeda in 2008 following a Sunni tribal rebellion against the group.

But the forces of sectarianism were never truly laid to rest and played a key role in the rise of ISIS between 2012 and 2014.

Kadhim Al Jabbouri, a well-known Iraqi weightlifter who launched the effort to topple Saddam's statue by attacking it with a sledgehammer, would later say he regretted his actions.

“Things started to get worse every year,” he told Time magazine in 2016.

“There was infighting, corruption, killing, looting. Saddam has gone, but now in his place, we have 1,000 Saddams.”

Updated: April 10, 2022, 12:09 PM