On April 9, 2003, three weeks after troops in a US-led coalition first entered Iraq in a war constantly surrounded by controversy, one of the most symbolic and perhaps misleading landmark events in the military push took place. Images of US Marines toppling a large statue of Saddam Hussein were broadcast live globally, and presented as marking the end of fighting. But while knocking down the statue signified the fall of Baghdad, its assigned value symbolizing the end of the war would turn out to be nearly nine years premature.
The 3rd Battalion of the 4th Marines had neither orders nor plans to topple statues that Wednesday morning. Tasked with pushing deep into the center of Baghdad toward the end of the land invasion, the Marine battalion was diverted to secure the city's Palestine Hotel, where communications breakdowns and poorly marked maps had recently led to the killing of two journalists by American artillery shells. After finding the hotel with the help of journalists they encountered along the way, many of whose colleagues were holed up in the building that did not appear on American military maps, a group of marines found themselves waiting in Firdos Square, at the center of which towered a statue of almost-deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
US troops were indeed in the final throes of capturing the Iraqi capital that day. The victory in the first military push into Iraq, however, had lacked a symbolic moment of victory to be pointed to by the American government and world media.
The first Iraqis to gather in the square that morning were quick to rip two plaques off the base of the statue and parade them to gathered cameramen who were anticipating what might transpire. Then, with more and more journalists descending to the square from the Palestine Hotel, a few dozen more Iraqis began intensifying their attempts to chip away at the massive bust. A non-commissioned officer responsible for a crane-equipped heavy duty tow truck approached Lt.-Col. Bryan McCoy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, and asked him if he could provide the crowd with light equipment to help them fell the statue. McCoy gave him his tacit approval, but the sledgehammer and rope the NCO gave the Iraqis were not nearly enough to bring it down.
The Lieutenant-Colonel, however, himself having walked down to Firdos Square from the hotel, saw the Iraqis' futile attempts and noticed the growing crowd of journalists eager to beam dramatic video footage back to their editors. McCoy called his own commander and asked for permission to help the Iraqis topple the statue of Saddam. After hanging up, he gave his men the order to use their heavy equipment to pull the statue down.
The entire scene was broadcast live for over two hours on US and other television news networks around the world. The images were replayed and seized upon by US military and government officials. Then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld said later that day, "We said from the beginning he is finished -- now [the Iraqis] are daring to believe it. Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators."
But closer scrutiny of the footage from that day and accounts from journalists who witnessed the scene has revealed a different reality than was portrayed nine years ago. No more than a few hundred Iraqis were gathered in the square when the statue was toppled and only a fraction of those present actually attempted to bring it down.
A number of the journalists who were there later complained their reports were taken out of context to assign much greater significance to the event than they felt it deserved. Tightly cropped shots focused on the few celebrating the toppling of the statue and correspondents played up the significance of the event.
A number of other symbolic visuals would be presented to the public in the coming months and years, including former US president George W. Bush's dramatic "Mission Accomplished" speech after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln only weeks after statue was toppled in Baghdad. At the end of that year, pictures of a ragged-looking Saddam Hussein were released after the dictator was pulled out of the spider hole he had hidden himself in. But none of those symbolically rich moments actually signified the end of the war.
The images that showed the actual end of the Iraq War came eight-and-a-half years later when the last US troops crossed the border back into Kuwait, the same way they entered in March 2003 but in much less dramatic fashion.
While still a lasting symbol of the fall of Saddam Hussein, the dramatic scene of toppling one of hundreds of statues of the dictator, turned out to be not much more than an opportune media event on the sidelines of the chaos at the end of a war and the beginning of a decade-long insurgency. Nevertheless, it was one of the more memorable scenes of the Iraq War for television viewers worldwide.