- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

BAGHDAD — Shortly after the interim government of Iraq was installed on Monday morning, a huge flag was hoisted atop a 10-story building at the edge of central Baghdad’s green zone, visible to the traffic-trapped motorists nearby. But it was not the blue, white and yellow banner introduced with some fanfare in April by the Iraqi Governing Council. Nor was it the simple red, white, black and green flag that flew over Iraq before the rule of Saddam Hussein. With no formal announcement or decision, Iraq’s new leaders, like its history-obsessed people, appear to have embraced the Saddam-era flag — the traditional standard as amended by the dictator shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf war with the words “God is great” scrawled across its face in Arabic. The same flag was raised over the new Iraqi Embassy in Washington yesterday by Ambassador-designate Rend Rahim and an aide. The flag revealed in April, with pale blue stripes on a white field that reminded many Iraqis of the Israeli flag, appears to have been abandoned with neither comment nor lament. “I don’t think that flag ever had legs,” conceded a U.S. official involved in preparations for Monday’s transfer of authority to the new Iraqi government. U.S. military officials had assumed after the 2003 war that the old flag — without the writing — would again fly over government buildings as it had since the early 20th century. They were as surprised as anyone when the Governing Council in April introduced the new white flag with three bars running under an Islamic crescent. Two blue strips were to reflect the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the yellow band to symbolize the Kurdish minority, according to officials at the flag’s formal introduction. Hameed al-Kafaei, the chief spokesman for the Iraqi Governing Council, said the design had been chosen from among 30 entries by a committee of council members. “This flag represents the democracy and freedom of the new Iraq, where the old one represented killing and oppression and dictatorship [of Saddam],” he said in April. But the designer, London-based artist Rifat al-Chaderchi, told the London Independent newspaper that he was not aware of a contest and simply had been asked to design a new flag by his brother, a Governing Council member. The introduction of a new flag infuriated many exhausted Iraqis, who already had gone a year with increasingly violent streets and fewer than 12 hours a day of electricity. “That was the flag of Israel,” hissed one man on Baghdad’s Saddoun Street. “Another occupier.” Nor does there seem to be much interest in reverting to the pre-Saddam flag, based on informal conversations and the few small flags and decals available for purchase in Baghdad shops. “Of course, [the ‘God is great’ banner] is the right flag,” said Marguerite Gorgis, a woman whose name and uncovered hair indicate she is a Christian. “What can be a greater protection than God?” The Iraqi people always have had a strong sense of national pride — a trait exploited by Saddam through the bountiful use of pageantry, monuments and rhetoric to unite a multicultured people and quell religious and ethnic divisions. The colors of the traditional flag, which were retained by Saddam, over the years have been adopted by many neighbors as the colors of Arab nationalism. The United States, for its part, has been careful in the past 15 months to avoid the trappings of occupation, making sure that the only U.S. flags visible in Iraq were the patches on the right shoulders of U.S. soldiers. For the first time yesterday, newly arrived Ambassador John D. Negroponte raised the Stars and Stripes over the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in a modest ceremony paralleling the Iraqi ceremony in Washington. “Whenever one is able to reopen an embassy of course it is a high privilege, but nowhere more so than here in Iraq,” Mr. Negroponte said shortly before dusk last night. “These have been a long, difficult 13 years [since the 1991 Gulf war], and now there is a new Iraq to explore, the likes of which has no precedent in the history of this ancient land,” he said. “Our presence, our outreach and our insight into Iraq’s political life, its economy and its society will be crucial to shaping a new era in bilateral relations.”

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