Baghdad's landmark statues falling to looters

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The world watched the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue April 9. But few saw the felling of the stately figure of Abdul Muhsin al-Saadoun -- or more than a dozen other landmark bronzes that once watched over this city's squares and boulevards.

Someone is stealing the public sculptures of Baghdad -- including beloved figures far removed from Saddam.

Al-Saadoun, Iraq's prime minister in the 1920s, killed himself rather than submit to British humiliation. His statue, in his trademark wool cap and cloak, has stood since the 1960s in the bustling east Baghdad square that bears his name.

Now all that remains is a single bronze shoe atop an empty pedestal.

"I can't lift my eyes to look at it any more. It's so sad," said Said Hamid Mahmoun after he stepped off a red double-decker bus.

Ali Talaat Dalak said he felt ill when he noticed the void.

"That statue was like a member of our family," Dalak said. "We look upon the empty space with great sadness now."

Al-Saadoun's statue didn't vanish alone.

Until May, a phalanx of 23 bronze Iraqi army officers stood regally in the park in front of the Umm al-Tubuul mosque in Baghdad's Yarmouk neighborhood.

Now, the pedestals are empty, surrounded by wind-blown garbage.

"Eighteen of them were stolen," said the mosque's imam, Mahdi Ahmed al-Sumaydayh. "We took the five remaining ones and hid them in the mosque."

Memorials stolen

The sculptures memorialized 23 soldiers who were hanged in the same location in 1959, after leading a failed coup attempt. They were rehabilitated after the Baath party came to power in 1963, well before Saddam took over.

The imam said he wasn't particularly moved by the statues, because Islam frowns on art representing the human form.

"But stealing is wrong," he said, his words ringing in the mosque's soaring interior.

Waves of public art thefts have beset cities beyond Baghdad, often for sale on underground markets. In recession-crippled Buenos Aires, thieves made off with statues in parks and on building facades.

In New Orleans, robbers have taken unique funeral sculptures from the city's aboveground tombs.

Baghdad's looters are thought to have the scrap market in mind. They wrap the usually outsize bronzes in chains and tug them with vehicles until they fall.

"These idiots know nothing about Iraqi history, or what the statue means to us," said Dalak, speaking inside the stationery shop he owns on Saadoun Street. "They just want to melt it down."

The raw bronze in the al-Saadoun statue might fetch about 500,000 Iraqi dinars -- or $350 -- in a scrap yard.

U.S. forces encouraged Iraqis to topple the omnipresent Saddam likenesses, but things didn't stop there. When the looters figured out they could get cash for scrap bronze, an industry was born.

Three months after Baghdad fell to the Americans, there are no more Saddam statues to topple.

Last month, thieves made off with seven bronze statues of military officers and politicians who led another failed rebellion in 1941.

Like the sculpture of Saadoun, the seven statues in central Baghdad's Tayraan Square commemorated a rebellion against the British, a popular theme in Saddam's day -- and, increasingly, today.

Mahmoun, the bus passenger, said he admired the seven officers because they tried to liberate Iraq from British occupation.

"These were good men, free men," he said.

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