(Also posted on Daily Kos)
Going over recent coverage of anti-U.S. demonstrations in Baghdad’s Firdos Square last week makes interesting reading. Most of the U.S. media took pains to point out that Firdos Square was also the site of the now-famous toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in an apparently spontaneous outpouring of emotion by Iraqis, jubilant over the arrival of U.S. troops.
Footage of the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled by freedom-seeking Iraqis dominated coverage of the April 2003 fall of Baghdad, and has become the dominant image of the early days of the American occupation. But did it really happen that way, and should the American media know better than to perpetuate those images as it did last week during the anti-American demonstrations?
The answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second question is yes. That yes ought to be particularly true of The Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Intelligencer. They need only to read their own archives.
Here is an excerpt of the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of last week’s massive anti-U.S. demonstration from the April 10, 2005 paper:
“By 11 a.m., the massive but orderly demonstration assembled in Firdos Square, where on April 9, 2003, several hundred Iraqis — with the help of U.S. forces — toppled Hussein’s statue in a now-famous gesture”
And here is an excerpt from the Associated Press coverage carried by the Seattle Intelligencer on April 8, 2005:
“Images of jubilant Iraqis toppling a 40-foot statue of Saddam Hussein and pelting it with garbage and shoes in Firdos Square defined the moment Baghdad fell to U.S. troops two years ago, a prelude to what many hoped would be democracy and freedom in a new Iraq.”
But on July 3, 2003 a very different version of events was depicted in the Los Angeles Times under the headline: “Toppling of Saddam statue was staged,” by David Zucchino.
Here are some relevent excerpts from that Times’ article:
“The Army’s internal study of the war in Iraq criticizes some efforts by its own psychological operations units, but one spur-of-the-moment effort last year produced the most memorable image of the invasion.
As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel — not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images — who decided to topple the statue, the Army report said. And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking.
After the colonel — who was not named in the report — selected the statue as a ‘target of opportunity,’ the psychological team used loudspeakers to encourage Iraqi civilians to assist, according to an account by a unit member.”
And much earlier, on May 30, 2003, The Seattle Intelligencer published a guest column by Steve Ludwig entitled: “Lights, camera, rescue.” Relevent excerpts follow:
“Shortly after the world was wowed by TV coverage of the toppling of Saddam’s statue, doubts were raised. A Reuters photo of the square was circulated showing a much smaller crowd than the close-up TV footage implied. Eyewitness accounts belied the news coverage of a ‘jubilant’ crowd: ‘ … it happened at only about 300 meters from where I was, and it was a very small crowd. The rest of the square was almost empty, and when we inquired as to where the crowd came from, it was from Saddam City (a poor neighborhood some distance away). In other words, it was a rent-a-crowd’ (Rev. Neville Watson, interviewed on SBS-TV, Australia).
British columnist Robert Fisk, writing from Baghdad on April 11 for The Independent, described the statue episode as ‘ … the most staged photo opportunity since Iwo Jima.’ And this from David Robie, senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology: “I watched BBC World in the lead-up to the toppling. The square was largely empty except for three strategically positioned U.S. Abrams tanks and an armored personnel carrier plus a small paltry crowd of 100 or so, many of them apparently journalists. A BBC World news presenter kept asking, ‘Where is everybody?’ “
The Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Intelligencer deserve considerable kudos for their earlier coverage that peeled away the layers of deception that shrouded those early images broadcast from Firdos Square. Why, one must ask, are they now once again falling into line and passing off the deception they had themselves helped expose? One might have hoped instead that the reality would have replaced the lie.