Iraq’s Identity Crisis in Symbols

Iraqis continue to disagree over the process designed to cleanse the streets of any symbols that go back to before 2003. In 2008, some parties within the Iraqi government attempted to remove the Victory Arch in Baghdad, by characterizing the monument as a sign of the wars led by Saddam. This angered some groups of the Iraqi public, which ultimately pressured US forces to prevent its demolition.

Moreover, the statue of Abdullah al-Luaibi, an Iraqi military pilot, was removed from the National Theater Square in Baghdad, which angered some Iraqis. Luaibi sacrificed himself in a suicide attack during the Iran-Iraq War, to prevent an Iranian aircraft from completing its offensive on Iraqi territory.

In this context, photographs of Iranian leaders posted in Iraq are understood to be part of Iranian control over Iraq, and not just mere photographs of Shiite religious figures, as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, head of the National Iraqi Alliance, said. Before they were raised in Baghdad, a large number of these photographs were spread throughout Basra, the third largest city in Iraq after Baghdad and Mosul. This drew a great deal of criticism from residents of the city.

Iraqi activists have followed the news of the dispute over these photographs in the Iraqi parliament with great enthusiasm. Iraqi writer Rasheed al-Khayoun stated that Khomeini and Khamenei are both political symbols for Iran and that their photographs cannot be raised in the Iraqi public sphere. Fakhri Karim, chairman of the Al-Mada Foundation, said that although ties with Iran are historic and strategic, raising photographs of Iranian leaders in Iraq is contrary to national interests. The news of this event resonated globally and regionally, even receiving coverage in international and Iranian newspapers.

These events reflect the government’s weakness in protecting the public sphere and making it a safe place where every citizen feels that he belongs. It is natural that the management of the public sphere becomes more complicated and exploited by those in power in different ways, where the prime minister openly expresses his principles and religious and partisan positions in his speeches and dialogues.

Ali Mamouri is a researcher and writer who specializes in religion. He is a former teacher in Iranian universities and seminaries in Iran and Iraq. He has published several articles related to religious affairs in the two countries and societal transformations and sectarianism in the Middle East.

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