BAGHDAD — The soaring half domes of the Martyr Monument stand out against the drabness of eastern Baghdad, not far from where Saddam Hussein’s feared eldest son was said to torture underperforming athletes.
Saddam built the split teardrop-shaped sculpture in the middle of a manmade lake in the early 1980s to commemorate Iraqis killed in the Iran-Iraq War. The names of hundreds of thousands of fallen Iraqi soldiers are inscribed in simple Arabic script around the base.
Today the monument stands as a memorial to a different sort of martyr. In recent years, the Shiite-led government has begun turning it into a museum honoring the overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish victims of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime.
The transformation of the Martyr Monument and other Saddam-era sites highlights Iraq’s effort to memorialize those persecuted by the former dictator and purge many symbols of his rule. Yet a decade on from the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqis still grapple with the country’s postwar identity and how much should be done to cleanse Iraq of traces of the strongman.
It is a tricky balancing act that risks exacerbating Iraq’s already strained sectarian tensions. Many Iraqi Sunnis today feel their sect has been marginalized and unfairly persecuted by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. For Baghdad, the historical clean-up effort has the added benefit of ridding Iraq of many uncomfortable references to war with Shiite heavyweight Iran, an increasingly important ally.
The Martyr Monument now features mannequins striking gruesome, if not particularly convincing, poses to display firing-squad executions and the unearthing of mass graves. Also depicted here are the poison-gas killings of some 5,000 Kurds by Saddam’s forces in the northern town of Halabja 25 years ago this month.
Kifah Haider, spokesman for the government-backed Establishment of Martyrs, which oversees the site, denied that the museum gives preference to certain victims over others.
“We wanted to document the crimes of the former regime,” he said. “It’s so this generation learns about the crimes they didn’t have to live through.”
The site plays up the majority Shiites’ role in opposing Saddam’s rule. Images of turbaned Shiite clerics, including many family members and political allies of Iraq’s postwar political elite, gaze down upon visitors. One banner depicts al-Maliki signing Saddam’s execution order. Posters show hellish fires superimposed on photos of the ousted leader.