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Iraq flags up symbolic changes

14 February 2008

by Gerald Butt, Middle East Correspondent

Flying the flag: top: council officials from Sadr City prepare to hoist the new Iraqi flag in Baghdad on 5 February PA

Flying the flag: top: council officials from Sadr City prepare to hoist the new Iraqi flag in Baghdad on 5 February PA

CHANGES to the national flag of Iraq, approved by parliament in Baghdad last month, were intended to help silence echoes of the brutal Ba’athist rule of Saddam Hussein.

The stars representing the three tenets of the Ba’ath party have been removed, and the Islamic declaration of faith, Allahu Akbar (God is Great), is now in Kufic script, rather than the handwriting of the former dictator. A green stripe has been replaced by red.

But, despite these cosmetic changes, the Iraqi flag — like those of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, and Palestine — is still a reminder of an era of upheaval in the Middle East a century ago.

The basic design of the flag dates back to the First World War and the start, in 1916, of the British-backed Arab Revolt in support of Allied operations against the Ottoman Turks. It was a time when the goal of pan-Arab unity seemed possible.

The original flag, in use from 1921 to 1959, consisted of three horizontal stripes — black, green, and white. The colours go back to the battle banners of the medieval Islamic dynasties of the Fatimids, Ummayads, and Abbasids. A red triangle on the mast side, partially covering the stripes, had two white stars denoting the two principal peoples of the kingdom: the Arabs and the Kurds.

The flag was designed by the Hashemite leader in Arabia, Sharif Hussein, in collaboration with an Englishman, Sir Mark Sykes, a member of the Arab Bureau in Cairo that had been established to co-ordinate and effect British policy in the Middle East.

Arabs have never forgotten that what they regarded as Britain’s promise of an independent and united post-Ottoman Middle East was broken because of a secret deal between Sir Mark and the French (the Sykes-Picot agreement).

Nevertheless, the flag endured in several parts of the new Middle East where Arab nationalist politicians, many of them Christian and educated at colleges established by missionaries in Lebanon and Syria, campaigned for pan-Arab unity and an end to colonial rule.

The continuing power of that dream among Arabs, no matter how unrealistic it is today, should not be underestimated. Syria’s national flag, for example, still bears two green stars, symbolising the very brief era of union between Egypt and Syria in the late 1950s that ended in acrimony in 1961.

Of the original flags of the Arab Revolt, only two are known to survive: one is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London; and the other was sold at auction in London in 2005 for £164,800 and is being exhibited in a museum in Jordan.

The sight of the flag raises strong emotions: “Every time I look at it my eyes fill with tears,” the Jordanian historian Ali Mahafzah says. “I go back to the beginning of the last century when we had such great hopes for Arab unity and freedom after 500 years of Ottoman oppression. At a time when the Arab world is divided and weak, the flag reminds us of our past hopes and helps us strive for a better future.”

With a flag that arouses such fierce emotions, it understandable, perhaps, that the Iraqi parliament decided to make only cosmetic changes to the country’s national emblem, even though nearly a century has passed since the Arab Revolt.

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