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Posted at 8:15 AM ET, 01/11/2011

Story Pick: The toppling of Saddam's statue

By Ian Shapira

On April 9, 2003, the world watched live on television one of the biggest spectacles of the Iraq War, the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square. In a story this week in The New Yorker, Peter Maass explores how the media -- mainly television networks like CNN and Fox News -- transformed the toppling into a triumphant event on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when, in reality, the statue was taken down by the Marines largely for the benefit of the hundreds of foreign journalists surrounding them.

Maass, with the help of the investigative journalism non-profit ProPublica, reconstructs exactly how the statue was ordered to be brought down, and reveals how only a small number of Iraqis gathered to watch its fall. The event, to those on the ground, felt minor. But the visual moment, Maass's story revealed, was inflated by the media and yielded disastrous consequences: the wrong belief that the U.S.'s mission had been accomplished, and that a nation of Iraqis had been united.

Maass was actually at Firdos Square when the statue went down, and he remembers something quite different from a victorious feeling in the air:

At the square, I found the reality, whatever it was, hard to grasp. Some Iraqis were cheering, I later learned, not for America but for a slain cleric, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, whose son Moqtada would soon lead a Shia revolt against American occupation. I met an apparently delighted Iraqi who spoke English, and he told me that his name was Samir and that he felt “free at last.” About an hour later, after the statue came down, Samir was cornered by a group of men who accused him of being a spy for Saddam and were shouting, “Kill him!” A marine had to intervene to save his life. The subsequent years of civil war, which have killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people, have revealed the events at Firdos to be an illusional intermission between invasion and insurgency.

By Ian Shapira  | January 11, 2011; 8:15 AM ET
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