BAGHDAD, Iraq—A wall near an abandoned racetrack bears a handwritten Arabic message. "Happy Birthday Saddam Hussein, you donkey," it says, drawing gasps and giggles from passing Iraqis.
Blocks away, another scrawl insults the two leading Kurdish clan leaders, across the street from a popular ice cream parlor. "Jalal (Talabani) and Massoud (Barzani) are pimping for the nasty Bush."
Welcome to Baghdad's open-air market of ideas.
In the dark of night and out of sight of patrolling U.S. forces, Iraqis have been slathering miles of the capital with graffiti, debating new political parties here, blaspheming President Bush or the soldiers who liberated them there, flexing their newfound freedom.
In part, the childish-sounding slogans suggest looming trouble among rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions. But the underground activity also partly reflects the tenor of politics as the sprawling capital cautiously shakes off a ghastly 35-year regime that systemically murdered its real and imagined critics. Iraqis are settling old scores and setting up new ones, in words, on the walls.
"Saddam and his assistants are now in the trash-bin of history," declares an anonymous message outside former offices of Saddam's Baath Party now occupied by the once-underground Islamic Dawa Movement, a Shiite Muslim group that ran afoul of Saddam's Sunni Muslim-dominated system.
"We will fight for you Saddam," vows another line elsewhere, presumably by Baath loyalists.
When they were in power, no Iraqi dared write graffiti, even anonymously. Baghdad was a city where sons informed on their fathers and people who slurred the president disappeared.
Now there are critics aplenty, in the shadows.
"Bush symbolizes freedom," someone wrote in the heady days after Saddam and the Baath Party leadership vanished ahead of advancing U.S. forces.
But blackouts still plague the city and gunfire crackles through the night, underscoring a widespread sense of insecurity. So the other day, someone added this bold reply alongside the earlier message: "Bush symbolizes destruction."
"I don't think it's freedom, because they do it in the night when no one's looking," said Silwan al Naimi, 27, a chemist who claims the regime hanged two of his uncles.
"Is this the time to express such ideas? Believe me, no one from the people whose sons and fathers were tortured write anything. They want revenge upon Saddam, with his blood, his flesh. You don't revenge on the wall."
So far mostly anonymous, the slogans suggest the hands of the dozens of political movements that have emerged around the capital and are vying for public sympathy.
Communists talk about the homeland in red paint, and frequently leave a hammer and sickle. Muslims leave excerpts from the Koran, in green. Exiles leave tidy exhortations for a new start, in a new nation.
Someone wrote "Mean Bush and his soldier dwarves will fall" in Arabic in one corner of the city, signing it The Islamic Fighters, a group never heard of before. The author is still timid; his words are a warning, not a call to action.
"Chalabi is a thief; we don't want him here" has popped up around the city, including near the Iraqi National Congress office of Ahmed Chalabi, the formerly exiled leader who for years led that outsiders' anti-Saddam movement with U.S. funding.
Now there is a reply that sure looks like an INC motto:
"Yes for reconstruction!
"Yes for Iraq!
"Yes for a new future."
Mostly the messengers write in Arabic, meaning their messages are meant for domestic consumption.
Soon after liberation, someone wrote, "I love you" in neat red letters outside U.S. Marine encampments.
Not all the slogans are so endearing. After a month of broken electricity, shattered streets and nightly gun battles, someone left a message on a wall that surrounds American soldiers encamped in a once-feared Iraqi secret police center:
"You'll be dead U.S. Army"
The message, so as not to be missed, was in English.
Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ): usiraq-graffiti