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A Day That Will Live in (CNN's) Middle Eastern History

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April 9, 2003: "One of the most amazing days in Iraq's history," according to noted Iraqi history expert, Wolf Blitzer. "For many it was the moment that Saddam fell." Well, as far as CNN is concerned, Saddam Hussein is history, and if you can see it on TV, it must be so. After all, pictures don't lie. As a Middle East historian, I have resigned myself to the fact that people with microphones and well-coifed hair insist on hijacking my profession. I only hope that people are smart enough to know the difference between television news and real history, between a lollipop and a full-course meal.

The powerful images of the toppling of the hollow bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's al-Fardaws [Paradise] Square were broadcast over and over not only on CNN's 24-7 coverage of the war, but also on all the national networks, whose entertainment/news executives deemed the footage so potent that for the moment at least they decided to preempt "Days of Our Lives" and Regis Philbin at mid-morning Eastern time on April 9. Finally there was a simple visual metaphor for the inevitable toppling of the regime, a made-for-TV "money shot."

I must admit that I was riveted myself. Literally overnight, Baghdad had been transformed from a city where Iraqi military and paramilitary forces were highly visible while patrolling the streets and keeping advancing American forces at bay in various locations to one in which Iraqi men scaled one of the most prominent symbols of the Baathist regime, that large statue, and struggled mightily to secure a heavy rope around its heck in order to bring it down. Seeing the rope would not work, members of the crowd took another tack. A large, muscular man with a sledgehammer approached, and began chipping away at the statue's base. With scores of media photographers recording the event, and emotions clearly running high, other men scuffled and shouted, trying to be the next to strike a blow against Saddam's statue. The statue finally came down, but not by Iraqi hands. The Marines employed one of their armored cranes, raising its arm up to Saddam's face. A couple of Marines climbed to the top, and fastened a heavy chain around Saddam's neck. For a minute, the Marine at the top covered Saddam's face with an American flag. Here was the visual metaphor for non-American news editors, one that will no doubt grace front pages around the world. Realizing the political sensibilities of flags in occupied lands, the Marines eventually pulled Old Glory down.

But I like to scan the whole frame of the television screen, a habit from my days as a photographer, peering through the eyepiece of my Nikon, looking for the most interesting action. And the steady coverage of the Saddam-toppling photo-op gave me a chance to glance other vignettes playing themselves out in the background. Although during most of the time, all the people around the statue were young or middle-aged men, eventually it was possible to see women in black abayas walking along the sidewalks, children in tow, watching the activity unfolding. No doubt they felt relatively safe from "coalition" bombs in the shadow of Marine Humvees, tanks and APCs. On the median of the street facing the statue, about eight Marines were sitting in a row, taking in the spectacle, resting. Suddenly, a boy of about eight or nine in a short-sleeved shirt walked up to the soldiers and without breaking stride gave a tap-tap with his small hand on each large camouflaged shoulder, perhaps his way of saying hello, or congratulations, or simply, "I'm glad you're here."

It brought a lump to my throat, and made me hungry for other such images. I was as exultant as members of the cheering crowds, but I was also doubtful and deeply troubled. While CNN has all but declared victory, the fighting will continue, and then the disorder and looting, and then the "rolling" imposition of the U.S. occupation authority. I know in my heart that when that boy who patted the Marines looks back on this day some years from now he will see it as a turning point. From this day on, the veil of suspicion, intimidation and fear that Saddam's regime had cast over the country will begin to lift. Schools and hospitals will be rebuilt and repaired. His mother and father will find more and more things to buy in the market.

But there are many more questions than these few certainties. Here is just one: How old will the boy be before he can go back to the American soldiers and say without trepidation, "Thank you for freeing us from our nightmare. But this is our country and it is time for you to leave"?