New Iraqi flag, void of Saddam-era emblems, hoisted over Iraqi Cabinet

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Tuesday that he believed the flag "could have been changed in a better form."

In a symbolic break with the past, a new Iraqi flag - void of Saddam Hussein's handwriting and the three green stars of his ousted Baath Party - was hoisted Tuesday over the Iraqi Cabinet building in Baghdad. Earlier this month, Iraq's parliament voted to remove Saddam-era emblems from the banner, including the stars thought to represent the three objectives of Saddam's now-dissolved party: unity, freedom and socialism. The calligraphy of the Arabic words Allahu Akbar," or "God is Great," was also changed. The words, which were added after Saddam's army invaded Kuwait in 1990, remain at the center of the flag but their design - in Saddam's own handwriting - is changed to a different script. The changes were prompted by a row with Iraq's Kurdish minority, who threatened not to fly the old banner during a pan-Arab meeting in the Kurdish-run north later this month. Many Kurds remember Saddam's forces hoisting the Iraqi flag during campaigns of persecution in the 1980s that saw more than 100,000 Kurds brutally poisoned and killed. To head off embarrassment for the Shi'ite Arab-dominated central government, parliament in Baghdad had scrambled for a solution in time for the conference. The new flag is valid for only one year, after which parliament must pass another law to establish a permanent design. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Tuesday that he believed the flag "could have been changed in a better form." "But this flag design was voted for by the parliament, and we have to commit ourselves to it," al-Maliki told reporters inside the U.S.-guarded Green Zone. "This is the only flag that should be raised." The Arab-Kurdish differences over the Iraqi flag go to the heart of a wider debate over the future shape of Iraq. A constitution adopted in a nationwide referendum in 2005 recognizes Kurdish self-rule and provides a legal mechanism for other areas to govern themselves. But an overwhelming majority of Sunni Arabs voted against the document and now demand that it be amended to address their grievances over issues of identity and the extent of self-rule that provinces should have. The Iraqi flag's black, red and white colors are inspired by a poem composed by al-Mutanabi, a famous Arab poet who lived in medieval Baghdad. But the Kurds maintained that the colors of the national flag were not representative of all Iraqis and had demanded that yellow, which dominates their own flag, be added. They failed to win on that point. The self-rule Kurdish region had mostly flown the Iraqi national flag along with its own since its creation under Western protection in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. But Massoud Barzani, the region's president, banned the Iraqi flag soon after Kurdistan's two rival administrations were united under his leadership in 2006. The move followed the election of his one-time rival, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, to the presidency of Iraq.