Reminder: Saddam Statue Was Toppled by Psy-Ops
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Five years ago today, Baghdad fell to the invading forces led by the United States. For many people, the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square crystallized the end of his rule, and it's an image that's been broadcast many times in the last five years, over and over. You'll probably see it again today as people remember this grim anniversary. But next time you watch it, bear this in mind.
Nearly four years ago, a Los Angeles Times writer revealed that according to a study of the invasion published by the U.S. Army, the statue toppling was not necessarily the spontaneous event that it appeared to be. David Zucchino is the national correspondent for the LA Times. He first reported that story back in 2004 and he's on the line with us now. Hey, David. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. DAVID ZUCCHINO: (Journalist, Los Angeles Times) Good morning.
MARTIN: Good morning. So David, you were in Baghdad on this day five years ago, but not in Firdos Square. When and how did you hear about that big Saddam Hussein statue falling?
Mr. ZUCCHINO: Well, actually, even though I was in Baghdad that day, I was across the river about a mile or two away and had no idea that was going on, and in fact, the Army troops I was with also had no idea, and I didn't find out about it until several weeks later when I got back to the U.S.
MARTIN: When you found out about it, what was the narrative attached to it?
Mr. ZUCCHINO: My impression was that there was a spontaneous rally by Iraqis and they jumped on the statue and basically pulled it down. I knew there was some U.S. soldiers or Marines in the area, but I was not clear on exactly what their role was, whether they were just providing security or were taking part. It was fairly nebulous.
MARTIN: So you dug up more specifics that cast light on those circumstances surrounding the toppling of the statue. Explain what you found out.
Mr. ZUCCHINO: This was part of a five-hundred-and-some page review, or report, by the Army on the entire invasion, what went wrong and what went right. It was sort of an After Action Report, and this was just sort of a one or two page sideline, almost a footnote.
They had interviewed an Army psychological operations' team leader and he described how a Marine colonel - the Marines were in charge of that area and had just come in, and this Marine colonel had been looking for a target of opportunity, and seized on that statue.
And according to this interview with the psy-ops commander, there were Iraqis milling around the statue, and in fact, had been beating it with sledgehammers and apparently thinking about trying to bring it down, but it was a huge statue and they had no way to do that. So the Marines came up with the idea of bringing in a big recovery vehicle, like a wrecker, and trying to bring it down that way.
But the psychological operations commander noticed that the Marines had put an American flag on the statue and he thought that was a terrible idea, because it looked like an occupation and he didn't want - the psychological ops didn't want that, so they replaced it with an Iraqi flag, hooked a cable up to it and started pulling it down.
But somebody had the bright idea of getting a bunch of Iraqis and a lot of kids and pile them on the wrecker to make it look like a spontaneous Iraqi event, rather than, you know, the Marines sort of stage-managing this entire dramatic fall of the statue.
MARTIN: So we can't say that it was the idea of this Marine colonel. He basically was surveying the circumstances, saw that there were Iraqis who were already kind of attacking the statue, and so the U.S. military, according to this report, just facilitated something.
Mr. ZUCCHINO: Correct. They took advantage of an opportunity. As he said, it was a target of opportunity, and they just sort of stage-managed it and made it happen in a way that it would not have happened if the Marines had not intervened.
MARTIN: And is it possible - is there any way that that particular psy-ops team leader, whose testimony ended up in the Army report, was exaggerating his team's role?
Mr. ZUCCHINO: It's possible. I mean, you have to take him at his word, but he does clearly say, in his interview, that the Iraqis were there and attempting to take it down. So he doesn't make it sound like it was the Marines idea totally. It's just that they took advantage of the situation.
MARTIN: And even if the Army psy-ops was involved, were they - what was the message that they were trying to drive home by seizing this so-called opportunity?
Mr. ZUCCHINO: Oh, their message was clearly that the Iraqis were welcoming the Americans. They were thanking the Americans for - literally for toppling Saddam Hussein, and this was a very dramatic moment, and they wanted to push across the message that the U.S. was liberating Iraq. They weren't occupiers. It wasn't a conquest. It was liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein.
MARTIN: Now, you first reported that information four years ago, and some news organizations though have repeatedly showed that image without including that particular context. Here's an example. It's part of a British television report that was broadcast on CNN last year. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)
(Soundbite of idling motor)
Unidentified Reporter: You won't remember his name, but across the world they remember what Kazeem Al-Jaburi(ph) did that day in April, four years ago. Elated at the overthrow of the tyrant he hated, Kazeem used his considerable strength, leading his neighbors in a symbolic attack on a statue of Saddam Hussein in the Firdos Square in Central Baghdad, near to where he lived. This act, these images, broadcast around the globe, came to represent the end of a cruel dictatorship.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
MARTIN: Now, that was a report from CNN. We should mention that, even on NPR, there have been several reports about the statue toppling that didn't take into account the Army's version of events. Do you think that there should be that disclaimer, some kind of context every time it's mentioned or aired? Or is it OK to air it as something that happened and let other people draw the conclusions?
Mr. ZUCCHINO: No, I mean, I don't think they're giving the full story. Their stories are not incorrect. They're just incomplete. As he talks about that one man, you know, bashing the statue, that did indeed happen, but then he skips from that small event and then jumps to the statue collapsing, as if that was one seamless event, and left out the huge part of the Marines' intervention.
But I can see how that happened. If you look at photos of event, you'll see that it was a very crowded, chaotic scene with people everywhere. Even if a reporter were actually there, he or she might not get the full impact of it if they weren't standing right next to that recovery vehicle.
MARTIN: And I just want to close by asking you, David, you were embedded with U.S. forces during the invasion, and you actually witnessed another Saddam statue go down. Can you tell us that story briefly?
Mr. ZUCCHINO: Right, yeah, to me, the symbol of the American taking of Baghdad happened two days before on April 7th. I was with the third infantry division, and they charged in that day, and took the Republican Palace and the Parade Field with the famous cross sabers.
And on that field, there was a very similar situation, where the Army commander was looking for a very symbolic toppling of the regime to prove to the world that American troops were in Baghdad because the Iraqi propaganda - or minister of information had been saying there were no American troops.
So they found a statue of Saddam on horseback and blasted it with a tank with an embedded TV crew there, and the pictures were shown live. But it was the middle of the night in the United States, so it didn't have nearly the impact of the statue toppling two days later.
MARTIN: Both powerful images, I'm sure we'll see them again today, and take on new significance, as we remember that day five years ago when Baghdad fell. David Zucchino is the national correspondent for the LA Times. Hey, thanks, David. We appreciate you sharing your reporting with us.
Mr. ZUCCHINO: Thank you.