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Monuments, statues destroyed by unidentified groups in Iraq

Despite vandalism turning into a phenomenon in Iraq, the Iraqi authorities have yet to identify the individuals destroying monuments and statues throughout the country, but there is growing consensus whereby such acts express a political rejection of the ruling parties.

Unidentified individuals vandalized June 4 the statue of cleric and poet Mohammed Saeed al-Haboubi in Al-Haboubi Square, the center of protest in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. No official Iraqi authority has released any information revealing those behind the attacks on public property, especially monuments and statues.

Protesters claimed on Facebook that “the assault on the statue of Haboubi took place after the protesters had left the square, [and that it happened] in order to discredit the demonstrators. Protesters in Al-Habboubi Square are innocent of such acts.” At the same time, members of parliament hinted at the increase of vandalism in the central and southern regions, thus alluding to protesters being behind such acts.

On Jan. 19, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq Mahmoud al-Rubaie accused “a bunch of bastards” of tearing up the image of the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Units, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was assassinated in a US raid in January, thus clearly pointing fingers at the demonstrators.

Meanwhile, Noureddine Ahmed al-Kheliyawi, an activist participating in the demonstrations at Al-Habboubi Square, told Al-Monitor, “The parties make it a point to repeatedly infringe upon the statue of Haboubi, which witnessed previous attacks. It is not demonstrators who are behind such acts but those representing the ruling parties and the influential forces controlling the reins of power. They have erected tents in the squares and the demonstrators have been infiltrated by them.”

He added, “The assault on public property, monuments and statues continues so that protesters can be accused of being behind such acts. Demonstrators are well aware of this and volunteered to restore the statue without the support of the local government.”

The various attacks on statues, monuments and murals lead the public to believe that there is a systematic and ongoing campaign taking place. 

On June 12, 2019, unidentified individuals removed the fingers of the statue of Turkmen figure Salahuddin Uji in Kirkuk, and on Dec. 31, 2019, an unidentified group vandalized the murals of the revolution in Tahrir Square in Baghdad.

Iraqi intellectuals were shocked about the news of the sabotaging of statues of historical figures in central Baghdad, including the statue of poet Abu Nuwas, on Sept. 13, 2018.

Shabib al-Medhati, a painter and sculptor and the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “Deliberate attacks are carried out by the Iraqi youths in protest against the authorities. Most artworks are suffering from neglect on the part of the government agencies in charge, and tampering with such artworks has become a noticeable phenomenon. Indifference is the result of political attitudes and religious beliefs.”

The rebellion against urban symbols and murals belonging to the ruling parties was exemplified by the burning of a part of the mausoleum of former Supreme Islamic Council leader Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim on Dec. 1, 2019. Hakim was killed in a car bomb in Najaf in August 2003.

On May 28, young protesters attacked the grave in Najaf of the father of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sadrist movement leader. A close associate of Sadr called on his supporters to withdraw from the burial site, indicating a conflict between the protesters and the Sardists who had attacked the protesters several times before.

Artistic works often fall prey to political revenge. As soon as a new political era begins, the symbols of the previous era are removed or destroyed. The current political era began in 2003 with the pulling down of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdos Square by demonstrators with the help of US forces.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, former Gov. of Baghdad Salah Abdul-Razzaq gave historical examples of the influence of politics on monuments erected in public squares, including “the toppling of the statues of Gen. Maude and King Faisal [after the revolution against the monarchy in Iraq in 1958], the demolition of the Monument of the Unknown Soldier following the arrival of the Baath party to power [in the late 1980s], the demolition of the mural in Aviation Square and the statue of the combat soldier near the suspension bridge [in Baghdad in 1991] and the attack on the statues of Scheherazade and Shahryar in Abu Nuwas [in 2011].”

Abdul-Razzaq added, “Those sabotaging the statues of national figures do not understand the meaning of the statue and think of it as a piece of stone or iron they do not like. Their cultural ignorance prevents them from realizing the importance of such monuments.”

Basem al-Zamili, former director of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor that “attacking monuments and artistic symbols shows public discontent with the authorities and parties.”

He ruled out the possibility of “the demonstrators calling for reforms being behind such acts, as the demonstrators are repairing the damage themselves.”

In an interview with Al-Monitor, a member of the Security Committee at the Baghdad Provincial Council, Saad al-Muttalibi, talked about the “populist mentality that does not distinguish between what is cultural heritage and government monuments.”

He said that “one of the goals is to destroy the sense of collective security, which is easily achieved when attacking symbols and cultural and religious monuments.”

While Muttalibi referred to “a political agenda being behind the phenomenon,” he stressed, “the difficulty of identifying one party as being behind it. The beneficiaries are those taking advantage of the protests to create chaos.”

Spokesman for the Interior Ministry Khaled al-Muhanna told Al-Monitor, “Not only does the phenomenon of attacking monuments, statues and symbols erected in public squares affect the security side, it also constitutes a reflection of a social culture that arose in times of wars, crises, and political and economic corruption — thus leading to social rebellion against anything related to the government, media outlets, art, heritage and values.”

Legal expert and former Judge Ali al-Tamimi told Al-Monitor, “The Antiquities and Heritage Law No. 55 of 2008 provides for the preservation of heritage and artistic symbols that people cherish, and the penalties for violating this law may include incarceration for up to 10 years in addition to a penalty for the value of the damage.”

However, it does not seem likely — based on past experience — that the perpetrators ot these crimes will be caught any time soon.

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