Destruction of beloved Baghdad statue emblematic of violence's toll

Knight Ridder NewspapersNovember 2, 2005 

BAGHDAD, Iraq—For 30 years, the peaceful face of Baghdad's founder served as a landmark, a touchstone in a city gone mad.

The bronze bust of Jaafar al Mansour, who founded Baghdad in the eighth century, stood in the center of a traffic circle in northwestern Baghdad and was used by nearly everyone as a reference point: "near the statue," "a kilometer past the statue." It was a symbol of the city, without politics or sectarianism.

Until Oct. 19, when terrorists reduced it to rubble with a roadside bomb of the same sort used to kill U.S. and Iraqi forces. With it went another bit of whatever sense of well-being that Iraqis still had.

"Ours is a country of many centuries of civilization," said Baghdad historian Salem al Alousy, 68. "I feel very sad about this. How will we explain to our children that we've ruined this country, that we've destroyed all of our heritage?"

The Mansour statue is hardly the first piece of Iraqi culture to be destroyed. The main gate of the Iraqi National Museum fell to an American tank during the invasion. The 1,200-year-old spiral minaret of Samara was badly damaged earlier this year by mortar fire.

But the destruction of the statue of Mansour, who died in A.D. 775, was especially troubling to residents, not just because it was so well known, but also because it celebrated Baghdad's storied past, not its recent troubles.

"They are destroying Iraqi civilization," said Ahmed Mustafa, 36, who owns a supermarket near the statue.

"It wasn't late, but even at 10 p.m., without electricity, we couldn't see anything," he said of that night. "We heard, felt the explosion and hoped there wouldn't be more. In the morning we learned the statue was gone."

The statue was built in the mid-1970s and was a rarity in a city where public artwork tended to be of former dictator Saddam Hussein. It became an immediate landmark.

Why it was destroyed is a mystery. Several Iraqi newspapers compared the act to the Taliban's destruction of graven images, including Buddhas, in Afghanistan. Others note that any artwork, even one by famous Iraqi sculptor Khaled al Rahal, done during Saddam's reign is a target for Shiite extremists. Some suggest an Iranian hand in the attack.

Mustafa blamed "outsiders," saying they were trying to attack Iraqi heritage, but he didn't elaborate.

He said neither he nor his neighbors notified police. "If I made a police report, who would protect me from the next attack, the one aimed at me?" he said.

Mohammed Khaled al Rahal, the son of the sculptor, agreed that an outsider had to be behind the destruction. No Iraqi would purposefully destroy a historical symbol, he said. His father was a famous sculptor before Saddam's regime and escaped being labeled as a political ally. Still, the son expects "many of my father's other statues will also be destroyed."

"It is not the last piece of our culture that will be taken away from us," he said.

Nori Abbas, 20, who works near the statue, said he thinks it was destroyed because some believed it symbolized the old Iraq. He bemoaned what he saw as an assault on the heritage of an ancient city.

"Everywhere you go in town, statues are removed or destroyed by explosions," he said. "Whoever is doing this is stupid. You can change the face of a statue, but you cannot change a whole city."

Saad Asem al Janabi, a member of the National Iraqi List, a coalition led by moderates such as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and former President Ghazi al Yawer that pushes for a non-sectarian, inclusive government, said he doubted fixing the statue would do much to ease violence. People who attack Iraq's history are seeking to divide the nation, he said.

"This was an attack on our history and culture," he said. "Mansour is a symbol for Iraqis just as the Statue of Liberty is for Americans. If they destroy it again, we will rebuild it again."

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(Alawsy is a Knight Ridder special correspondent. Knight Ridder correspondent Matthew Schofield contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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