The monumental leader who cuts a fine figure everywhere
[Sydney Morning Herald - March 4 2003]:
The dust is thick, the flames fierce, but visitors to the chaos of the Sheik Omar Street foundry stop in their tracks when they come to the imposing honour guard - 32 fine bronze statues of Iraqi soldiers who have died in battle.
The detail of these "martyrs" is impeccable. The defence minister who died in a helicopter crash has all the dignity of high office and the pain of his tragic war-time death. They clutch the tools of battle - a walkie-talkie, a stethoscope, a machine gun, a swagger stick. One simply clenches his fist in anger.
But it quickly becomes apparent that this foundry is not about the dead. When they pour molten metal here, most often it is in homage to one man who is very much alive - Saddam Hussein.
He is everywhere. In the first workshop he seems to be toppling from his horse because the work has yet to be placed on the angled plinth for which it was designed.
The next workshop is locked. But through its barred windows can be seen a statue of the President that is more than 10 metres tall, a plaster of Paris, gun-toting giant. Soon it will be used to cast a hollow mould, into which men will pour tonnes of molten bronze.
In the next workshop he is a mere six metres, wielding a rifle more than two metres long.
All of this is the monumental end of one of the most pervasive personal cults of our time.
In Iraq only one person is allowed to breathe the political, media and cultural oxygen - Saddam. On TV he is the news. Towns and cities are wall-papered with his portraits and scattered with his statues. The people are encouraged to model their life on that of Saddam; and his life story, especially his rise to power, is packaged as an Arab legend.
Virtually all of Ottoman Baghdad has been demolished, and the broken-down, boxy city that has taken its place is a celebration of the leader.
In the face of another destructive war, Saddam presses on with a program of monumental works, the most grandiose of which is the Grand Saddam Mosque, second only in size to Mecca. Its dome, still a skeleton of concrete scaffolding and cranes, will be the size of a football field, sitting on top of eight colossal arches.
A few kilometres away is the Mother of All Battles mosque - with its minarets built to look like Scud missiles and a special pavilion in which 600 gilt-edged frames display the pages of the Koran, written in Saddam's blood. In another direction is a giant sculpture of crossed swords, held by hands modelled on those of Saddam.
Undoubtedly, there is disquiet with the nature and excesses of the regime. But equally, there is admiration for how Saddam got to, and remains in, power in the face of Western hostility. And the deliberate echoes of the greats of Iraqi history in the cult of Saddam play well in the hearts and minds of many Iraqis.
Outsiders dwell on how he modelled himself on Stalin and Hitler and maintains his grip on power through a totalitarian one-party state where the price of criticism is death.
The self-perpetuating power of the cult was all the easier to understand on a visit to the Sheik Omar Street foundry, when Abdul Jabar paused in his work on a series of sculptures of ancient Iraqi philosophers, ordered in glasses of sweet tea, and talked about the President and the people.
Dr Jabar is a sculptor of note - his five monumental works on display in Baghdad include two of Saddam - and his views are all the more illuminating because he worked and studied in the United States for 10 years.
He starts before the rise of Saddam Hussein.
"We were a very poor and hungry people, and as a culture we needed an historical leader. Our colonial past has given us a great desire to rebuild our history.
"So in Iraq we all are a part of the leadership. Saddam's confidence comes from the belief of the people in him, so it is our duty to be good citizens and fight with him."
And despite his exposure to democracy in the US, the sculptor is happy with life in Iraq.
"I don't know about the need for an alternate leadership. Saddam has been good for Iraq."
Dr Jabar produced a bundle of Arabic-language newspapers in which his artistic criticism had been published. Surely if he believed in criticism in art he should endorse it in politics?
"We do have criticism here. Criticism of Iraq by the US is not constructive; it is destructive."
What about the appalling accounts of human rights under the Iraqi regime, as told by the exiled Iraqi community?
"Who exiles these people? There are no exiles outside Iraq. They go of their own free will. Some of them have not been here in 40 years, so how can they be accurate?"
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/03/03/1046540137320.html