Sunday 13 April 2003

The stage-managed events in Baghdad’s Firdos Square

Image-making, lies and the "liberation" of Iraq

Several photographs publicized by an antiwar web site shed light on the way the American media is manipulating images of the war in Iraq to give the false impression that the vast majority of the Iraqi people are joyfully welcoming the invasion and occupation of their country by US and British troops.

These photographs, available on the web site of Information Clearing House show that the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, given massive publicity in the US and international media April 9-10, was a stage-managed affair.

As transmitted to the world by US television and newspaper reports, the pictures from Firdos Square purported to show a mass of enthusiastic Iraqis hailing the US military and trampling on a gargantuan bronze statue of Saddam Hussein. Hours of television time and pages of newspaper coverage were devoted to these pictures, with accompanying commentary comparing the scene to the bringing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the liberation of Paris in 1944.

The first photograph on the Information Clearing House site is a wide-angle shot encompassing the entire expanse of Firdos Square, rather than the narrowly focused, closely cropped framing used in the mass media. It shows that the “crowd” surrounding the statue of Saddam Hussein is anything but massive, and that the square itself has been surrounded by US Abrams tanks, cutting it off from the rest of the city.

The caption supplied by the site notes that Firdos Square is across the street from the Palestine Hotel, where most international journalists based in Baghdad are located, a fact that even the Washington Post’s TV critic noted was “either splendid luck or brilliant planning on the part of the military.” Of the 200 or so assembled, the majority were journalists and American soldiers. The BBC reported that only “dozens” of Iraqis were involved.

Who those dozens were is suggested by two additional photographs published below the wide-angle photo. They show the arrival from exile of the Pentagon’s handpicked Iraqi “leader,” Ahmed Chalabi, in Nasiriya on April 6, accompanied by several aides, and a close-up of one of the participants in the April 9 statue demolition scene in Baghdad. It is clear from the two pictures that the man celebrating “liberation” in Baghdad was one of those accompanying Chalabi into Nasiriya three days earlier.

The significance of this should be clear: those who “spontaneously” gathered in Firdos Square included Iraqi political agents of the American military, dispatched from Nasiriya to Baghdad to serve as an appropriate backdrop for the visuals desired by Bush administration spin doctors. If not “Wag the Dog,” it is at least a case of “rent a crowd.” Or, as Robert Fisk of the British newspaper the Independent described it, “the most staged photo-opportunity since Iwo Jima.”

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