Witness: In Libya, echoes of Baghdad's Firdos Square

If Libya is lucky its new government will learn from the mistakes of Iraq. There is already talk of unity of Libya's many tribes.

August 24, 2011 19:16
4 minute read.
Libyans celebrating the capture Bab al Aziziya

Libyan celebrate flag Tripoli_311. (photo credit: Reuters)

Watching the images of Libyan rebels streaming into Muammar Gaddafi's compound, decapitating statues and waving the accouterments of power they had just looted it was hard not to think back to that day in Baghdad eight years ago.

At first a clutch of Iraqi men threw shoes at the statue. One beat at its marble-faced plinth with a sledgehammer. A couple brought out a ladder and tried to tie a rope around Saddam Hussein's towering bronze legs.

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I was an embedded journalist working for an American magazine on April 9, 2003 and stood in Baghdad's Firdos Square watching as the end-of-empire drama played out around me.

After some time, a US Marine commander ordered his men to pull down the monument of Saddam. The Marines were tired after three weeks of fighting and constant moving and nights of four hours sleep, but happy to be welcomed in Baghdad with cheers and handshakes rather than bullets.

People along the road to the square had come with gifts: cake, cups of tea, yellow flowers picked from a nearby garden.

A few flowers ended up in the strapping around the Marines' Kevlar helmets. Iraqis - there were a few hundred in the square at its peak, along with Marines and reporters - laughed at the Western peace activists who had come to Baghdad to try to stop the war.

"Go home," one man said to a young British woman. "You're not needed here now."

The Marines positioned their tank recovery vehicle, a kind of battlefield tow truck, in front of the statue.

There was an embarrassing kerfuffle when a Marine unfurled a flag across Saddam's face but then cheers as the flag was replaced by an Iraqi one. The tank reeled in its cable and then reversed. As the cable went taut the bronze Saddam slowly creased at the knees and then lurched forward and hit the ground where it was swarmed by a cheering, stamping mob.

There is one major difference in Libya of course.

In Iraq, the liberators - that is how many welcomed them at first - were American and British. In Tripoli yesterday, it was Libyans shaking history, their Western sponsors careful to stay out of sight.

But in Libya, as in Iraq, an afternoon of celebration is not likely to end the violence. Already the search for the dictator and his sons has begun, just as it did eight years ago.

And as Libyans struggle to put their country back together, mending the damage of years of repression and sanctions, there will also be times when they wonder what became of the sense of hope and happiness that seemed so palpable yesterday, even just watching the scene unfold on television.

Great expectations

In 2003, the significance of Firdos Square changed quickly. Depending on your point of view, the toppling of the statue was a moment of liberation from tyranny, a victory for the United States and its swaggering president or a carefully managed show for the cameras.

But as the temperature and violence rose over the following months, the statue's fall came to look like a moment of hubris, not so much the end of a war as the beginning of a long slide into chaos.

The looting, which had already begun as the Marines pushed into Baghdad, would last for days. By the time Saddam's sons were killed months later and Saddam himself had been dragged from his hole in the ground, tried and executed, the optimism of Firdos Square had been replaced with blast walls and kidnappings.

If Libya is lucky its new government will learn from the mistakes of Iraq. Already Libyan rebel leaders have indicated they will not dismiss the entire military, as Baghdad's American overlords did with tragic consequences. There is talk too of unity, an appreciation that Libya's many tribes need to come together.

But as Iraq proved, expectations are hard to meet. It is not just that unrealistic hopes inevitably lead to disappointment, though they do. There are also a thousand unexpected changes that come when you throw off a dictatorship.

I remember talking to an old woman on the street in Baghdad a day or two after the statue came down. She was sitting on a footpath 20 yards or so from an American checkpoint, wanting to talk to someone but not sure who to approach.

"When will the Americans tell us to open our shops?" she asked when I introduced myself as a reporter.

"I'm not sure they will," I replied through a translator. "They expect you to decide things like that now. One person deciding everything is over."

She looked at me with puzzlement and worry.

As Libyans move on from their moment of joy, they should remember that the great change they have almost won will bring more change and then more.

On that day eight years ago, Iraqis bubbled about a new beginning. It felt as if something had shifted.

It had. We just did not yet know how.

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