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Iraqis Take Their Battle to the Walls

Graffiti reveal bitter national divisions and expose the hearts and minds of the populace. Hussein loyalists vie with U.S. supporters.

November 23, 2003|Samson Mulugeta | Newsday

BAGHDAD — As U.S. soldiers prowled this sprawling city hunting insurgents the other day, they appeared unaware of another battle being waged under their noses: pro- and anti-Saddam Hussein graffiti artists duking it out in a battle for public opinion.

Thousands of slogans in Arabic script snake across acres of gray walls that line city squares, apartments and office buildings, a perfect canvas for the outpourings of a population intoxicated by new freedoms.

Hussein loyalists shout their yearning for the deposed dictator -- "Saddam will come again" -- followed by the coda on the same line from a detractor: "Through my behind!"

"I walk around reading these writings, and some of them move me so much I don't know whether to laugh or to cry," said Amir Nayef Toma, 52, a retired radar operator in the Iraqi army. "You want to know what Iraqis are thinking? Read these walls."

In a place where reliable surveys of the public mood are difficult to gauge, the writings on the walls are one way to peer into Iraqis' minds. Hussein is naturally a lightning rod for all sides, but the other issues that preoccupy the nighttime scribblers are their daily struggles for survival, their Arab neighbors and the new men in charge of their lives.

"Some are ironic, some are funny, some are artistic," said Muhir Edan, a bookseller in the Old Baghdad section of the city whose friends teasingly say he is a Colin Powell look-alike. "Even now, some are afraid to say something in the newspapers. I am still afraid. But at night, in the cover of darkness, you can write what you want."

Edan's favorites are the back-and-forth graffiti repartee: "The masses are stronger than tyrants," one slogan declared. Next to it a skeptic asked: "When? Before or after liberation by the Americans?"

There are the occasional anti-American slogans, some in misspelled English -- such as "Dawn USA" -- but mostly President Bush is hailed as a liberator, especially in the neighborhoods of the Shia majority historically brutalized by Hussein.

Samplings of the Arabic slogans include:

"Down Saddam the infidel and long live Bush the believer!"

"A thousand Americans but not one Tikriti," referring to residents of Hussein's hometown.

Many taunt the deposed dictator: "Saddam the dirty, the son of the dirty, in which septic tank are you hiding now?"

Hussein's family also comes in for abuse: "Where are your wife and daughters, Saddam? Are you pimping them in Jordan?"

"I like what I read," said Karal Nadji, a Shia street vendor who sells shoes. "We appreciate Mr. Bush. We're all waiting for the fruits of change."

The walls are being used as campaign advertising for the dozens of political parties vying for a place in the new Iraq: "Workers of the world unite. Free people, happy homes -- Workers Communist Party."

Critics of the Iraqi Governing Council and Ahmad Chalabi, founder of the Iraqi National Congress, are frequent targets of barbed witticisms.

A popular slogan comparing the politician with an Iraqi chickpea dish declares: "Neither Bush we want, nor Chalabi; we want beer and lablabee."

Toma, the former radar operator, predicted that the writing would stop in another six months.

"We Iraqis are so full of suffering and bitterness, these feelings are just pouring out of us," said Toma, who has carefully transcribed more than 100 slogans in a small notebook. "Soon we will realize we can speak out freely. We don't have to write on the walls."

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