Deception and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, 9 April 2003

Introduction

Following its strategy attempting to throw light on deceit of all kinds, Clarion is compiling a dossier of information about the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Fardos Square, Baghdad on 9 April 2003. The purpose of this, as always, is to learn not only about this incident in particular, but to gain insight into techniques of deception in general, and how particular techniques might have been or might be applied in other circumstances. Studying one particular incident can also yield valuable information about the integrity of individuals and organisations; you need only catch someone lying once to know that he or she is a liar. We don't attempt to come to any conclusions here yet, but simply start to collect information.

Dossier

From that mine of information and disinformation that is the web, Clarion has ferreted out some eyewitness reports. The policy in doing this is to try to find reports published by well-known organisations available on their own websites (as opposed to unverifiable, purported copies of reports elsewhere on the web).

Hence we have first an interview with Perth clergyman Neville Watson, dated 17 April 2003 on the website of the Australian state broadcaster SBS at http://www.sbs.com.au/insight/trans.php3?transid=506 Amongst other things, Watson said: "Well, there certainly was some jubilation, but I certainly wouldn't go along with that presented by television. The one that I've seen a lot of since I've been back is the toppling of the statue of Saddam and I can hardly believe it was the same one that I saw, because it happened at only about 300m from where I was and it was a very small crowd. The rest of the square was almost empty, and when we inquired as to where the crowd came from, it was from Saddam City. In other words, it was a rent-a-crowd."

The next one is an eyewitness account by an ("embedded") American reporter John Koopman for the San Francisco Chronicle. It's unusual for any US newspaper report to remain on the web for more than a few days yet this one is freely available at the time of writing April 2006 at: "MCCOY'S MARINES: DARKSIDE TOWARD BAGHDAD Chapter 6 of 6". http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/11/15/DDP2UPUS1.DTL

Then there is (April 2006) a report on the US military's own website titled "Toppling the Statue--Army PSYOP Supports I MEF", which according to its footnote is by "Staff Sergeant Brian Plesich, team leader, Tactical Psychological Operations Team 1153, 305th Psychological Operations Company, interview by Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Cahill, 31 May 2003." This report is about one sixth of the way down this web page: http://call.army.mil/products/on-point/ch-6.asp. It's doubtful whether this should be described as a first-hand account since its footnote implies some kind of filtering through a second person. In any case, given the nature of its source, there is no reason at all to suppose that it can be taken at face value. Here's one obvious internal inconsistency. The third paragraph mentions a "very large crowd of civilians starting to form up", but a couple of sentences later we read that there were "almost as many reporters as there were Iraqis". Here's another oddity. The report is written in the first person, which presumably represents Staff Sergeant Brian Plesich. Yet suddenly we read "It was real quick thinking on Staff Sergeant Plesich's part to get that Iraqi flag up there quick." What's this, Plesich giving himself a pat on the back? At least someone must have a sense of humour. However, the report does at least appear to confirm the involvement of a US military "Psychological Operations" (that's a euphemism for deception) unit.

On the subject of this report, there is an LA Times article "Army Stage-Managed Fall of Hussein Statue", David Zucchino, 3 July 2004 An abstract is freely available on the newspaper's own website: "As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel -- not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images -- who decided to topple the statue, the Army report said. And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking." This is here. (It's easy to verify that this is indeed the archive of the LA Times by going to the archive search on the main LA Times website and searching for it.)

There are a couple of points to make about this article. There are many references to it and purported copies of it on the web, for example at http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0703-02.htm. Assuming that commondreams is an accurate copy of the article (and there is no reason to doubt that), then the article adds nothing to the report on the military website cited above. So what seems to be a newspaper report turns out on closer inspection to consist of nothing more than recycled second-hand information from a US military website. It's noticeable that the LA Times took the precaution of avoiding any proper reference to the report, which might have allowed its readers to easily find it for themselves.

There is however one snippet of information relevant for our purposes in the article as presented on commondreams.org, and that is a photograph with the caption "Cpl Edward Chin from New York of the 3rd battalion, 4th Marines regiment, set up the star and stripes flag on the face of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's statue, in downtown Bagdad, Wednesday, April 9, 2003. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)".

The removal of a statue in Russia

On the topic of the toppling of Saddam's statue, a posted comment on the web says: "One thing I noticed about that whole Saddam statue performance is how similar the imagery was to Lenin's statue coming down in Moscow, an image now synonomous with the end of the Cold War and victory to Americans."

Sure enough, in a programme on the history of the Soviet Union, broadcast by the BBC more than ten years ago, there are some evident similarities. A large statue is being symbolically removed, and to judge by the number of camera flashes the event evidently received a lot of media attention, as did the performance in Fardos Square. The other similarity is that perhaps not everything is quite as it seems. The pictures on cursory inspection give the impression of a large approving crowd but on closer inspection reveal that in the one scene there are only a handful of people and in another scene that only four of the people actually look as though they are jubilant. A detailed description is here.

To be continued; last updated September 2006.