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Saddam's specter lives on in Iraqi landmarks

Monday - 3/18/2013, 7:11am  ET

In this Dec. 6, 2011 photo, photo, giant busts of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein lie in a scrap yard in Baghdad, Iraq. A decade on from the invasion that ousted the strongman, Iraqis still grapple with the country’s postwar identity and how much should be done to wipe away the dictator's influence. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
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Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The soaring half domes of the Martyr Monument stand out against the drabness of eastern Baghdad, not far from where Saddam Hussein's feared eldest son was said to torture underperforming athletes.

Saddam built the split teardrop-shaped sculpture in the middle of a manmade lake in the early 1980s to commemorate Iraqis killed in the Iran-Iraq War. The names of hundreds of thousands of fallen Iraqi soldiers are inscribed in simple Arabic script around the base.

Today the monument stands as a memorial to a different sort of martyr. In recent years, the Shiite-led government has begun turning it into a museum honoring the overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish victims of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.

The transformation of the Martyr Monument and other Saddam-era sites highlights Iraq's effort to memorialize those persecuted by the former dictator and purge many symbols of his rule. Yet a decade on from the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqis still grapple with the country's postwar identity and how much should be done to cleanse Iraq of traces of the strongman.

It is a tricky balancing act that risks exacerbating Iraq's already strained sectarian tensions. Many Iraqi Sunnis today feel their sect has been marginalized and unfairly persecuted by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. For Baghdad, the historical clean-up effort has the added benefit of ridding Iraq of many uncomfortable references to war with Shiite heavyweight Iran, an increasingly important ally.

The Martyr Monument now features mannequins striking gruesome, if not particularly convincing, poses to display firing-squad executions and the unearthing of mass graves. Also depicted here are the poison-gas killings of some 5,000 Kurds by Saddam's forces in the northern town of Halabja 25 years ago this month.

Kifah Haider, spokesman for the government-backed Establishment of Martyrs, which oversees the site, denied that the museum gives preference to certain victims over others.

"We wanted to document the crimes of the former regime," he said. "It's so this generation learns about the crimes they didn't have to live through."

The site plays up the majority Shiites' role in opposing Saddam's rule. Images of turbaned Shiite clerics, including many family members and political allies of Iraq's postwar political elite, gaze down upon visitors. One banner depicts al-Maliki signing Saddam's execution order. Posters show hellish fires superimposed on photos of the ousted leader.

The Martyr Monument is located some 2.5 miles (four kilometers) from Firdous Square, where 10 years ago on live television U.S. Marines memorably hauled down a Soviet-style statue of Saddam, symbolically ending his rule.

Today, that pedestal in central Baghdad stands empty. Bent iron beams sprout from the top, and posters of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in military fatigues are pasted on the sides.

But Saddam's grandiose creations live on elsewhere.

The crossed-sword archways he commissioned during Iraq's nearly eight-year war with Iran stand defiantly on a little-used parade ground inside the Green Zone, the fortified district that houses the sprawling U.S. Embassy and several government offices.

Iraqi officials began tearing down the archways in 2007 but quickly halted those plans and then started restoring the monument two years ago. Nevertheless, the hundreds of Iranian soldiers' helmets that once spilled from the base of the sculptures, suggesting an Iranian defeat that never actually happened, were removed.

Other insults to neighboring Iran, with which the postwar Iraqi government has increasingly close ties, have been scrapped too. A statue of a pilot who once stood atop the wreckage of an Iranian fighter jet recently disappeared from downtown Baghdad.

Some Shiites say more needs to be done to exorcise Saddam's specter and that of the now-outlawed Baath party he once led.

"The removal campaign should go on until we get rid of everything that reminds us of this criminal and his party," Shiite lawmaker Ali al-Alaq said.

But other Iraqis fear that too much of Saddam's larger-than-life legacy has already been lost.

Sinan al-Obeidi, a history professor at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, argues that some Saddam statues and other works should have been kept so future generations can learn what his rule was like.

"If every ruler ... destroyed remnants of the previous era or civilization, then we would not have any antiquities or archaeological sites left to see," he said.

Baghdad-based artist Nassir al-Rubaie understands the desire to rid Iraq of Saddam's statues, but he fears things have gone too far.

"Unfortunately, some of the people who are handling the removal issue have no understanding of the meaning of art," he said.

It was easy to wipe away some traces of the dictator's legacy, like renaming Saddam International Airport -- now Baghdad International -- or Baghdad's double-decker Leader Bridge, now known as Hassanain Bridge in commemoration of two of the holiest Shiite saints. New banknotes without Saddam's portrait began circulating within months of the invasion.

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