US says flag incident was a 'coincidence'

By Kim Sengupta in Baghdad

11 April 2003

It was, by any measure, an astonishing coincidence. As the biggest statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad was pulled down "spontaneously" in front of the world's media, the Stars and Stripes which flew on the Pentagon on 11 September was at hand to be draped over its face.

The US army denied that the toppling of the 20ft edifice by a tank tower was stage-managed. It was a coincidence, they said, that Lt Tim McLaughlin, the keeper of that flag, happened to be present.

And, it has to be noted, the commander of the US marines who completed the capture of Baghdad did express concern at the time that the use of the Stars and Stripes smacked of triumphalism. It was later changed to an Iraqi flag. But not before acres of TV footage had been shot.

Yesterday, the US army banned any display of the flag on vehicles, buildings, statues and command posts, halting its display almost everywhere but the US embassy in Baghdad.

There was some suspicion that the crowd that jumped up and down on the metal carcass had been bused in from the Shia suburb of Saddam City. That was not the case, they were mostly local. But they were the same people who chanted "My blood, my spirit, I shall die for you O Saddam" until the last day of the regime.

Flushed with victory, the marines one spoke to had no doubts about the war's justice. But when asked whether they had seen any proof of a link between al-Qa'ida and the defeated Iraqi regime, there was general puzzlement.

When one of the few remaining "human shields" in Baghdad, Uzma Bashir, from Rickmansworth, baited the troops with shouts of "Yankee murderers", Cpl Ibrahim Rahim exploded: "I scooped up the brains of two young marines ... They died fighting to liberate Iraq. And you stand here insulting them with this shit." He added: "I am a Muslim ... and I know this region. That woman is seriously abusing her right of speech."

Captain Brian Lewis, a tank commander, said: "All we are trying to do is create the conditions for representative government."

2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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