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Tuesday, April 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Iraqis balking at replacement for flag from Saddam's regime

By The Washington Post and The Associated Press

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — It was supposed to be the perfect symbol for a new and unified Iraq: a blue Islamic crescent on a field of pure white, with two blue stripes representing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and a yellow stripe to symbolize the country's Kurdish minority.

But the new national flag, presented yesterday after a competition sponsored by the Iraqi Governing Council, appears to have met widespread public disapproval in Baghdad, in part because of the design and in part because of the increasing unpopularity of the council.

In interviews in several Baghdad neighborhoods, almost all residents expressed strong negative reactions to the flag, which was reproduced in most daily newspapers. In particular, people objected to the pale blue of the crescent and stripes, saying it was identical to the dominant color in the flag of Israel, a Jewish state.

"When I saw it in the newspaper, I felt very sad," said Muthana Khalil, 50, a supermarket owner in Saadoun, a commercial area in central Baghdad.

"The flags of other Arab countries are red and green and black. Why did they put in these colors that are the same as Israel? Why was the public opinion not consulted?"

One Iraqi who appeared to be in the minority, Mohammed Faris, said, "It (the proposed design) is the real model as it represents all spectrum of the Iraqi society."

In Arabic nations, the colors of flags have widely recognized meanings.

Green, white and black denote Islam, harkening back to the battle banners of the medieval Islamic dynasties of the Fatimids, Ummayads and Abbasids.

Green is said to have been the prophet Muhammad's favorite color; the Saudi, Libyan, Algerian and Mauritanian flags are completely or largely green.

Islamic crescents in Arab heraldry are usually green or red.

Red, meanwhile, points to Arab nationalism. It was the color of Sharif Hussein, who led the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule in the early 1900s, and he added it to a flag of green, white and black stripes to create a symbol of pan-Arabism. Sharif Hussein's banner was the basis for the Jordanian, Palestinian and Syrian flags as well as the old Iraqi one.
 
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The only Arab League members to have blue in their flag are the African nations of Djibouti and Somalia.

Other Baghdad residents objected to the removal of the phrase "God is great" in Arabic text ("Allah akbar"), which adorned the previous national flag.

"After we added 'Allah akbar' to the old flag, we became more proud of it," said Riad al-Saadi, 33, who called the new flag "meaningless."

Others said there was no need for a new flag until national elections are held in January and a new constitution is written. Many then shifted to criticism of the U.S.-appointed council, saying it had no independent authority — even to introduce a national emblem — and was too deferential to U.S. wishes.

"I will be delighted when this council is dissolved and a new government is formed," said Amer Abdulaimy, 38, a day laborer, who said he preferred the old flag and saw no reason to change it. "The council has done nothing for us, and it is the same as the American government. We need free elections."

Hameed al-Kafaei, the chief spokesman for the Governing Council, said the winning design, created by Iraqi artist Rifat al-Chaderchi, was chosen from 30 entries. A committee of council members felt it best represented the major values and attributes of Iraq, al-Kafaie said.

"This flag represents the democracy and freedom of the new Iraq, where the old one represented killing and oppression and dictatorship (of former President Saddam Hussein)," he said.

"We are not imposing this flag on the people; it was chosen by the legitimate representatives of Iraq. When a new national assembly is elected, it can decide whether to keep it or change it."

He said the designer was asked to touch up the color of the crescent, perhaps to a darker blue or a different color. He said a final version will be announced later this week.

"This is a new era," al-Kafaei said. "We cannot continue with Saddam's flag."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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