Hard News by Russell Brown


Neil Morrison is "sad" to see me "wasting time on conspiracy theories" - to wit, the suggestion that the highly symbolic toppling of Saddam's statue in Firdus Square had the whiff of stage-management.

There are, he says, "two obvious questions about the supposed photos of the Chalabi supporter [see the post below]: are they the same man and where exactly was the single close-up photo taken?

"Stay with the paranoid Indymedia stuff if you want. But don't be surprised when the much despised neocons gain even greater influence by staying closer to reality. Argument based on reality was the traditional advantage of liberals on issues such as the real effect of drug laws on people's health and personal freedom. Arguments based on conspiracy theory and moral outrage used to be the domain of conservatives, but times have changed."

Alright, then. Paranoid conspiracy theory or reasonable observation?

Neil is right to the extent that, while there are frequent references (mostly in the alternative press) to the small crowd in Firdus Square containing associates of Chalabi, there is - beyond the picture - no conclusive proof of such that I have been able to find. But this Canadian site does have the original picture (as distinct from the one in the Indymedia montage) of the man in the Square, which it appears to credit to Reuters.

It also notes this BBC story, quoting soldiers on the scene as saying the US flag initially draped over Saddam's head was the one flying over the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The Daily Telegraph reported the same thing, and the debate since appears to have been largely about whether or not the flag was retrieved from the rubble of the Pentagon or was flying on another part of the building at the time of the attacks. That it was shipped over from the US and delivered to Firdus Square for the event does not appear to be in doubt.

Three days beforehand, the US government - presumably it went on the Pentagon's bill, rather than the State Department's - flew Ahmed Chalabi and dozens of his people into Nasiriyah, along with their very own new US-funded (new uniforms and everything) militia, the Free Iraqi Forces. Sometime shortly after that, Chalabi's people were also in Baghdad. Presumably they didn't walk there. It's not really much of a stretch to believe that they might have been chauffeured into Firdus Square to make up the numbers.

The toppling of the statue by a US armoured vehicle looks now like an insightful exercise in media management. It was presumably not a coincidence that it was that particular statue, right in front of the international media's base at the Palestine Hotel - even though there were other, bigger statues in the city - that was chosen.

The scene outside the square, which was defended with US tanks, was a little more complicated. The crew from Deutsche Welle was one of relatively few in the area to turn around and walk into the side streets, where they found Iraqis who were as angry as they were elated. There was fighting in progress and, according to Abu Dhabi TV, Saddam staged his last, bizarre public walkabout in another part of town on the same day.

John Lee Anderson's beautifully-written diary of the liberation days for the New Yorker is really worth reading for a sense of the atmosphere. Interestingly - and like a number of other print journalists - he is almost dismissive of the statue event:

By the time we got back to the hotel, the marines had arrived, and the approach to the street was blocked by armoured personnel carriers. We got out of the car and walked toward them. A man who was standing in a crowd gathered at the side of the road called out to ask us if we were Americans, and when we said yes the whole group began cheering and applauding us, clapping their hands as if they were at a performance in a theatre. Not long afterward, in the traffic circle in front of the hotel, a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down by soldiers in an armored personnel carrier.

Television in particular needs visual symbolism and spectacle, and the US networks, which went live from the square for a good two hours, got what they needed. And, in a way, so did we, the punters. People were looking for a tipping point, an end of sorts, and they got it. But the Brandenburg Gate, it most certainly was not.

It is also worth noting that while they were securing Firdus Square for freedom, the US Marines weren't doing another thing: keeping public order. The only power base remotely capable of that appears to be the mosques. The Americans would do well to engage with, rather than ignore, Islamic political moderates, as this column from the Observer points out.

Anyway, big ups to Bruce Springsteen. I am no great fan of the man's music, but I can only respect his courage in standing up for the Dixie Chicks at what is clearly a difficult time for free speech in America. The statement on his website reads, in part:

The Dixie Chicks have taken a big hit lately for exercising their basic right to express themselves. To me, they're terrific American artists expressing American values by using their American right to free speech. For them to be banished wholesale from radio stations, and even entire radio networks, for speaking out is un-American.

The pressure coming from the government and big business to enforce conformity of thought concerning the war and politics goes against everything that this country is about - namely freedom. Right now, we are supposedly fighting to create freedom in Iraq, at the same time that some are trying to intimidate and punish people for using that same freedom here at home.

I don't know what happens next, but I do want to add my voice to those who think that the Dixie Chicks are getting a raw deal, and an un-American one to boot. I send them my support.

The Nation also has a story on the chilling of dissent in America.

But Helen Clark can relax a bit. Yet another sovereign leader has fallen afoul of the USA's twitchy, vindictive approach to foreign policy. Membership of the "coalition of the willing" before the war does not, apparently entitle the Czech president Vaclav Klaus to have an opinion on Iraq. The Washington Times has a story based on this interview with the US ambassador to the Czech Republic.

"Meanwhile, back in the real world," says Neil Morrison "28 independent journalists are imprisoned in Cuba."

Indeed they have been, in the twilight of a sad and bankrupt regime. But "better than Cuba" is hardly an aspiration or a recommendation. Especially not when, in another part of Cuba, at Guantanamo Bay, 600 people, including children, are being held without charge, access to legal counsel or their families, or even the basic rights of POWs. At least some of them are claimed by their families to be innocent, but the White House has declared that they have no rights and can be held indefinitely. The children are being interrogated.

And meanwhile in the home of the free, thousands of people - including US citizens - are being held without charge. It took court action by civil rights groups (yeah, those pansy, paranoid liberals again) to force the US government to release their names so their families knew where they were. Many of these people - like Mike Hawash - are not even suspects. Read this column from the Seattle Times:

In 1942, they came for the Japanese Americans and herded them into concentration camps in the desert. They lost three years of their lives and many of their possessions. Their offense was improper ancestral heritage.

In the '50s, they came for left-wing professors, labor organizers and bohemians, dragged them in front of cameras and microphones. They lost, in many cases, jobs and careers. Their offense was having radical thoughts.

On March 20, they came for Maher (Mike) Hawash, an Oregon software engineer, an American citizen of Palestinian ancestry. Federal agents seized him in the Intel parking lot, and a second team, with assault rifles and bulletproof vests, searched his home occupied by his wife and three terrified children.

Hawash's offense? No one knows, for no charge has been filed.

He was whisked away to a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., which authorities will not confirm. He had a secret bail hearing, was put into solitary confinement and as of last weekend had not been questioned by federal authorities.

Now tell me whose side you'd rather be on.