Picture Post: The fall of Saddam – and 'the green blob'

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The Independent Online

When the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Firdous Square, Baghdad, five years ago this week, I was standing next to Col Brian P McCoy of the American marines, who had led the US force into that section of the city.

It was the iconic moment in the Iraq war, a symbol, as the Americans wanted to portray it, of "liberation". But the script began to fall towards farce even as the attempts began. The 30ft edifice simply would not come down, despite desperate efforts. At the end they brought in a Hercules, a vehicle used to salvage broken 75-ton tanks, which smashed down the steps to the plinth along the way. At last the statue fell, and the Americans had their symbol of victory.

Then there was the "jubilant crowd", as portrayed on Western television, taking part in the ritualised downfall of a tyrant. But that, we subsequently discovered, was not quite the true picture.

The crowd had been bussed in from Saddam City, later to be renamed Sadr City, a vast Shia slum on the edge of Baghdad. It formed a rent-a-mob which, in subsequent days, went on to loot and burn the Iraqi capital while American troops simply stood by – another attempt to portray the invasion as a precursor to a popular uprising.

Col McCoy winced when he saw an American flag being put on the face of Saddam and ordered that it should be replaced by an Iraqi flag, much to the chagrin of some of his comrades. We were told at the time that it was a Stars and Stripes that had flown at the Twin Towers on September 11, and had somehow been rescued for just this very day. "That's bullshit," said the Colonel. "Look at it, it's brand new." He also said that he and his troops should leave Iraq to the Iraqis "as soon as possible, otherwise there would be trouble". How right he was.

Four months ago, I revisited Firdous Square, which is just behind the Palestine Hotel, where foreign journalists were corralled by the Iraqi authorities back in 2003. There, in its unkempt surroundings, with tumbleweed blowing, was the replacement for Saddam's statue, erected less than two months after its predecessor was torn down. It purportedly shows a couple with a child holding up an Islamic crescent moon framed by a Sumerian Sun. Its official name is Najeen, or "Survivor", but Baghdadis call it "the green blob". After universal derision, the career of its sculptor, Basim Hamid, has nosedived too.