Defaced by Americans, restored by Iraqis: Saddam's greatest folly

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

13 July 2004

They are going to preserve the monument to Saddam's greatest folly and his greatest war crime. The vast blue, egg-shell monument to his invasion of Iran and the subsequent eight-year war - complete with the names of about 600,000 Iraqi soldiers who were killed - is to be restored by the new, American-appointed Iraqi ministry of culture. Iraqi police now guard the site, only days after US troops abandoned the memorial. It had been used as an American military headquarters for well over a year.

The names of all the Iraqi dead are still there, sergeants and captains and colonels and ordinary jundi (soldiers) who died in their tens of thousands for Saddam's grandiose dream - eagerly supported at the time by the United States - of destroying the new Islamic Republic of Iran. A few of the dead have had their names erased - by vengeful comrades, perhaps, or through family feuds - and the great underground crypt whose walls bear the names of Iraq's heroes in that war has been daubed with the insignia of the US units who were billeted here.

So what should one feel in this memorial to a war which physically or invisibly mutilated every family in Iraq? What right did the Americans have to leave the symbol of a knight in armour with a broken sword, a dragon and the words "Courage Conquers" next to the names of men who were torn to pieces in so terrible a war? Or to spray-paint "Hammers: Ready First" and "Bandits" - this above an image of a human skull - beside the Iraqi dead of more than a decade and a half ago?

But should it be restored? Most of these names belong to cannon fodder and, I suppose, to patriots. But others belong to Baathists and to "special units" of the Iraqi army who fired gas into Iranian lines and whose air-force colleagues dropped canisters of gas onto the villages of Kurdistan. There must be war criminals among these men. Even the name of the monument - "the Qadassiya war memorial" - remains at the gate, and this was Saddam's crazed title for the war he launched on Iran which was infinitely more cruel and bloody than his occupation of Kuwait or our illegal invasion of Iraq last year.

Qadassiya was the great Arab battle against Persia, fought under the Third Caliphate, which the Iraqi hero General Saad bin Abi Wakaas won after urging his warriors to blind the new Iranian terror weapon - elephants - by throwing spears at their eyes. Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab had sent his general to destroy the Persians and it took him six days and five nights. Saddam, who of course thought he was Abi Wakaas, took eight years to achieve a ceasefire.

So what are the dead worth? I took a taxi from the monument yesterday, under a grey Baghdad sky, to the old British war graves at Baghdad's North Wall and asked the Iraqi cemetery keeper - wages $50 (£27) a month - to show me the last resting place of Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude, the British commander of the 1917 invasion of what we used to call Mesopotamia. A small man with spectacular energy, Ahmed Hadi Saleh hopped, skipped and jumped across the overgrown graveyard to point to the mud-brown mausoleum of the general. I had read so much about him. An original copy of his "proclamation" to the people of Baghdad - "we come here not as conquerors but as liberators" - hangs on my library wall. And there I found him.

"MAUDE" it said simply, in huge capital letters on his hot stone sarcophagus, still shaded by an Indian-style cupola. On the wall was a plaque. "Lt Gen Sir Stanley Maude KCB CMG DSO. Coldstream Guards. Born 24th June, 1864. Died of cholera in Baghdad 18th November, 1917 whilst commanding Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force. 'I am the Resurrection and the Life.' He fought a good fight. He kept the faith."

Someone had lit a fire in the corner of the mausoleum to cook food. Outside, some of the gravestones - of British soldiers of the 1914-1918 war - were smashed, alongside dozens of British troops killed in the great insurgency of 1920.

I used to say that the Americans should visit this cemetery and learn its lessons. But they did. "They came twice and broke the locks on the gates," Mr Saleh said. "They took my rifle which I need to guard against thieves. They were looking for something." For weapons of course. What better place to hide guns than a cemetery? So now Mr Saleh has bought new locks and asks me kindly to leave. "There are too many Ali Babas here - too many looters," he says to me. "People will have seen you come. You should go now."

Which tells you all about Baghdad; the foreigner on the run, even in the cemetery of his own country's dead. Goodbye, then, to District Policeman N L Nisbett, aged 29 (died 15th August, 1920), farewell to Captain Buchanan who was 27 and who died the same day, and to 25-year-old Captain Bradfield of the Somerset Light Infantry who was killed two days before Nisbett and Buchanan. Goodbye General Maude. And to the 600,000 Iraqi dead of the "Qadassiya" war. And, of course, to the 900,000 Iranian dead, many still hidden beneath Iraq's sand.

But, please, spare the gravestones. Don't light fires. And leave your military insignia off the walls of memorials.