Iraq’s flag redesign erases one of the last symbols of Hussein regime

300px-flag_of_iraq_svg.pngBy Peter Smith
The most recent Iraqi flag – a red, white, and black field with green Arabic script and three green stars – was retired by the parliament this week and replaced. While agreement on a new – if temporary – flag was hailed as a sign of progress and a more unified national identity, for some, the latest version represents continued ethnic divide.

The background colors of the flag is the same: red, white, and black. The inscription, the calligraphic style of which was changed in 2004, will remain. But the banner’s three stars have disappeared in a bid to strip the flag of a key reminder of Saddam Hussein’s rule, reports Al Jazeera.

[T]hree green stars in the centre, which represented Saddam’s Baath party motto of unity, freedom and socialism, have been removed. … The script was originally in Saddam’s handwriting but was changed unofficially in 2004 to Kufic, an early form of Arabic calligraphy that originated in [Southern] Iraq.

The flag change appeared to be a step in the right direction, according to The Times of London:

“The new flag has no signs of Saddam’s regime and is a sign that change has been achieved in the country,” said Humam Hamoudi, a leading Shia politician. It will also be seen as further evidence that the Parliament is beginning to tackle difficult issues.

Iraq has had numerous flags since the country’s 1921 inception by British mandate. White, black, green, and red appeared on most of the flags, representing Arab-Islamic powers. In 1958, a yellow sun was added to symbolize Iraqi Kurds. In 1963, Arab nationalists replaced the sun with three stars. The handwritten script, Allahu akbar (“God is great”), was added by Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War.

The conservative blogger and occasional Wall Street Journal columnist, Omar Fadhil, on the blog Iraq the Model, writes that the past two flags were not sufficiently representative.]

“The old flag was not an Iraqi flag. It was the flag of the Arab nationalist and didn’t represent the various components of the complex Iraqi society, and after Saddam had put the holy words on it, it became Saddam’s flag.]”

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some sought to change the flag as part of an effort to remove all public symbols of Hussein’s legacy. Much of the opposition to the Iraqi flag, reports The New York Times, came from Iraq’s northern region, largely populated by ethnic Kurds, thousands of whom were killed in chemical attacks in the 1980s.

Kurdish politicians, many of whom survived the genocidal gas bombings by Hussein forces in the Anfal, or spoils of war, campaign of the 1980s, were among the fiercest critics of the old flag. In 2006, Massoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, refused to fly the flag from government offices, prompting fear of Kurdish separatism.

Last September, Mr. Barzani called for the flag’s removal, according to Agence France-Presse:

“[T]he present flag is not the flag of Iraq, but of the Baath Party and chemical strikes, drainage of the marshes, putting down uprisings and mass graves.”

The most recent changes precede a pan-Arab meeting in Arbil, in the largely autonomous Kurdistan region, planned for February or March this year.

On Tuesday … Kurdish lawmakers pushed for a compromise, dropping their insistence on yellow lettering for the Arabic inscription, for a design without Baathist references.

Zuhair Humadi, a senior adviser to the Shiite-led Iraqi government, said the Kurds sought the deal before an international conference of members of Arab Parliaments in weeks.

“They won’t come if only the Kurdish flag is flying,” Mr. Humadi said of the Arab leaders. “And Barzani wanted that meeting to be in Kurdistan, and he will not allow Saddam Hussein’s flag to be flown. So they agreed to this.”

Some considered the action rushed, and Reuters reported that the changes would likely be temporary and the new flag will fly for only a year.

Lawmakers loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who hold 30 seats in parliament, voted against the proposal for that reason, saying they would prefer to keep the existing flag until a permanent one was chosen.

Other ethnic parties remained unsatisfied with the changes, saying they believe the Kurdish regional government was simply pursuing its own agenda, which has included recent contracts with foreign oil companies, The Washington Post reports.

“It was an organized conspiracy to change the flag,” said Khalaf al-Alayan, a Sunni member of parliament.

Nothing goes unchallenged in Iraq’s parliament, and the legislation adopted Tuesday to create a new, temporary Iraqi flag proved no exception. If anything, the contentious process reflected the larger sectarian differences that consistently tug at this country.

The recent changes are part of a slew of recent debates over the flag. In 2004, a redesign caused an ever greater stir. The American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council announced a version by London architect Rifat Chadirji. It was white, blue, and yellow, with a prominent Islamic crescent. Even the United States military paper Stars and Stripes said the crescent was “an unfortunate shade of blue” that bore a striking resemblance to Israel’s flag.

Others suggested the flag evoked new post-Soviet states that wanted to emphasize Islamic heritage – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. That left out Iraq’s Christians and other religious or ethnic groups.

Reactions to the most recent change appeared tame, compared to the 2004 embroglio, reports The Boston Globe, which caused protests. Still, on Wednesday, the Iraq Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) told the Iraqi daily Aswat Aliraq that the decision was “illegitimate.”

“The AMS is convinced that every thing approved or adopted in the time of occupation will not continue after its withdrawal,” the AMS said in a statement received by Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI). “This came within a series of decisions that affect Iraq’s sovereignty.”