Iraq's few tourists will find Hussein is everywhere

January 29, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KARBALA, Iraq -- To be a tourist in Iraq, you should gird yourself for the gruesome. And pardon the paranoia, but Saddam Hussein is always watching.

The sights of ancient Iraq are burdened with this country's version of political correctness.

Everywhere there is the aggrandizement of war, and everywhere there are looming portraits of President Hussein.

Visitors to the stunningly beautiful Mosque of al-Abbas in Karbala, for example, now also see a government museum of the macabre.

The 1991 Shiite rebellion erupted and ended in this mosque. The nooses made of electrical cable, from which the rebels hanged 71 government loyalists, still are hanging. Each is now encased in a glass column, preserved for display.

Mr. Hussein, in an adjoining room, kneels piously and prays from life-sized oil portraits placed in opposite corners.

There are not many tourists here, of course. The embargo after the Persian Gulf war keeps them out. Anyone who rejects the U.S. government's advice to avoid Iraq finds tourist sites ghostly empty. And they find sightseeing opportunities that come with a political message.

The message is as subtle as the pavement at a Baghdad DTC monument to the Iran-Iraq war. Underneath giant crossed swords, the bumpy parade ground is made of Iranian soldiers' helmets, some of them smashed or bullet-riddled from the fighting.

At the museum there, one can see the blood-stained uniforms of enemy soldiers and the wreckage of war machines. The displays have labels extolling the virtues of Mr. Hussein's regime, whose war with Iran cost nearly a half-million dead and came to a standoff.

Confusing displays

In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 60 miles south of Baghdad, it is unclear which displays are for tourists and which are for the locals.

Here, in the wake of the Iraqi army's rout after the gulf war, Shiite Muslims rose up and seized the town, killing government and Ba'ath Party officials. When support that the rebels expected from the United States failed to come, Mr. Hussein's army slowly regrouped and retook Karbala, aiming tank guns at the mosque and the surrounding town.

To demonstrate Mr. Hussein's benevolence, however, the government has restored the mosque. Skilled Indian workers delicately applied 440 pounds of 24-karat gold leaf and more than 600 pounds of silver to the monuments.

But the government has left the simple concrete buildings of the surrounding neighborhood in rubble, a constant reminder to the Shiite population of who is in control.

"The people understand the rebels were not really working for a better Iraq," said Abdul Kahliq Abdul Aziz, the governor of Karbala. He is a round, affable man who has a dozen variously colored telephones on his desk, a sign of his importance.

Office portraits

On a visit to his office in 1991, shortly after he helped crush the resistance, Governor Aziz had more than 20 portraits of Mr. Hussein in his office. Now there are only 10, including the Saddam Hussein desk calendar.

"I had to give some of them away to display in other public places, because so many were lost," he explained.

In the uprising, Mr. Hussein's portraits had been thoroughly riddled with bullets.

Now the portraits are again ever-present: There is Saddam Hussein the pious, Saddam Hussein the construction worker; the businessman, the jaunty sportsman.

Iraqis say they have long since become oblivious to the portraits. But a visitor would be overwhelmed by the personality cult around Mr. Hussein.

The Hussein portraits "convey the people's feelings to their president. It's the same as you putting Lincoln or George Washington on that mountain" -- Mount Rushmore, said Amer al-Obaidi, the director of the Saddam Hussein Arts Center in Baghdad.

At this modern center, many of the works by Iraqi artists were hidden away for fear of bomb strikes during "the Mother of All Battles -- what you call the Gulf War," said Mr. Obaidi. He is a model-chic man with wavy, shoulder-length white hair and Yves St. Laurent suits.

Many of the art works remain in storage. In one basement storage room is a collection of yard-high figurines of Mr. Hussein, each in an identical pose with his right hand raised. In each he is dressed in a different costume.

Nearby in the basement are models of rejected proposals for public monuments. They appear like boys' toy army sets, miniature battlefields filled with figurines of ferocious soldiers, advancing tanks, menacing planes and missiles.

"We don't force political matters on the artists. If they wish to paint about political matters, it's up to them," says Mr. Obaidi.

Opposition art

Asked if the museum ever displayed works of political opposition, Mr. Obaidi appeared to be stunned.

"What do you mean? I haven't come across this kind of expression to see if we would be able to exhibit it or not. This never happened."

He added: "We do have opposition. But it's all outside the country."

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