It's a Grand Old Ba'ath Party Flag

The new Iraqi flag is flying over the country’s embassy here in Washington.

I don’t mean that dreadful blue, white and yellow design approved and then abandoned last year by the Iraqi interim government, a flag that looks more like a beach towel or an airport sign pointing the way to the nearest restroom. I mean this flag, the latest version of the revolutionary republican flag adopted in 1963 with the takbir — “Allahu Akbar,” or God is Greater — added by now-incarcerated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1990.

For those few who have looked at the flag and noticed the difference, they’ve either complained bitterly that the Iraqis were using the "same damn flag" or that there was simply a "minor" change to the script. Which shows just how much attention they really are paying. It was the first thing I noticed about that flag last June.

(I’m not really that surprised that no one commented much on the script change. American pundits tend to be an ignorant and self-centered lot. Few have taken more than the two-bit tour of the Middle East, fewer know any Arabic whatsoever, and fewer still are open-minded or curious enough to ask such questions.)

But that change — from what was allegedly Saddam Hussein’s own handwriting to Kufi, an ancient Arabic script — is not simply a cosmetic change of fonts. Because flags are important national symbols, I believe it is a fairly significant change, and tells us a lot of what Iraq’s aspiring leaders want their country to be and what parts of the past they are prepared to keep and build on.

First, the change was probably intended to rob what was then a budding resistance to the Anglo-American occupation of a powerful national symbol. It would have been a pointless battle for Iyad Allawi’s government to defend a flag that no Iraqis felt much passion or attachment to. The second Iraqi Republican flag, however, was a flag many Iraqis fought for and suffered for in the 1980s and 1990s, a flag many saluted and honored, and there were signs last April that the resistance was beginning to organize and use this flag as a symbol of resistance not only to the occupiers but also to the slowly evolving Iraqi state.

(In retrospect, it probably hasn’t helped much, but then, who knows what additional eight balls the interim government would have been behind had it decided to adopt and defend a silly old beach towel.)

The fact that so many Iraqis show an attachment to the Ba’ath Party’s version of the red, white, black and green flag of the Arab Revolt means that Iraqis have decided there are things about the 30 years of Ba’ath dictatorship that were good, things they intend to honor. Despite the communal and ethnic divisions inherent in the country since it was more or less invented in the 1920s, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party managed to forge an Iraqi identity and nationality of sorts. As I’ve noted in a previous column, what else would explain the national loyalty of so many Iraqi Shia and more than a few Kurds to the Iraqi state during the nearly decade-long war with Iran in the 1980s? Loyalty to country and countrymen, whatever one’s feelings about the government and the leader, is a powerful thing.

So adopting that flag was a brilliant and easy way to co-opt a powerful symbol of Iraqi nationalism.

Keeping the takbir while changing the script to Kufi was a brilliant move, too. It’s much more striking than the Saddam scrawl, which also managed to symbolically connect the nation of Iraq and the religion of the majority of Iraqis to the person of Saddam Hussein. It shows the world that Islam — much of which was a show adopted by Saddam and the senior Ba’ath Party cadres in the 1980s to blunt any appeal the religious Shia government of Iran might have had on wavering Iraqis — is important to the Iraqi state and helps to define what Iraqi society is. But it also roots Iraq — a modern state invented as part of the post-World War One arrangements that sliced up the Ottoman Empire — about as far back in Islamic history as you can go.

The Kufi script originated in the 8th century, and many of the earliest extent copies of the Qur’an are written in Kufi. Using the script embeds the modern nation-state of Iraq deeply in Islamic history by openly and brazenly claiming to the entire Arab world that history — the 400-year history of the Abbasid Caliphate and its leadership of the Muslim world — as Iraqi history. (Ba’ath Iraq claimed the Assyrians, the Akkadians, and Sumerians as "Iraqis" in the history texts taught in primary and secondary schools as part of the process designed to create a greater sense of Iraqi nationality.) It also thoroughly embeds the Iraqi nation deeply in Arab history too, claiming as ancient and authentic Islamic and Arab heritage for Iraq as the shahadah (la ilaha ila allah muhammadan rasulilah — "there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God") does for the al-Sauds of Riyadh on the Saudi flag.

Which is a drawback for the country’s Kurds, who are simply not "represented" in this flag. (Yellow is the color of the Kurds, and the first republican flag, which flew from the coup of 1958 through 1963, was a red, white and black tricolor with a yellow sun with red rays in the center, white stripe.) This flag says Iraq is an Arab and Islamic state, and the only thing keeping the Kurds attached will be any sense they have of a shared Islamic identity. Which will probably not be enough for most of them.

It also suggests that many Iraqis still possess a sense of national self-importance, and still hope that Iraq will "matter" in the Arab world. Keeping that flag, which is associated with what many of us would consider three decades of repressive and murderous government means that enough Iraqis — especially the country’s elite — have been able to detach Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s personal rule and from the worst excesses of the Ba’ath Party.

In much the same way Vladimir Putin combined the symbols of Alexander I’s Imperial Russia and Stalin’s Soviet Union (especially in his first inaugural) to embrace a past (and imply a present) when Russia was a world power that mattered, Iraq is keeping the symbol of proud, powerful state. If and when the country recovers from the last two decades of Saddam’s rule, as well as the Anglo-American invasion and occupation, Iraqis may again conclude they are again the natural leaders of the mashreq, the eastern part of the Arab world.

It will be interesting to see what Washington — or Tel Aviv, for that matter — feels about the issue should that day ever come.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.