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Iraq: Past and Present

April 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: In the war in Iraq, history is everywhere — structures that go back thousand of years, shrines that date to the very beginnings of Islam, layers and layers of past wars and invasions that came before this one. Seyyed Hossein Nasr is an Islamic scholar and professor at George Washington University. His most recent book is “The Heart of Islam.” We talked Thursday, as U.S. forces neared Baghdad.

JEFFREY BROWN: It seems as though at every turn in this war there is a collision with history, with religion, with culture.

SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Absolutely, because of the unique historical background of Iraq, going all the way back to the Babylonian and Sumerian period before that and of course during the Islamic period. Practically the whole land of Iraq is strewn with sites of great significance, both archeologically and religiously for today’s religion, that is, the presence of Islam in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: U.S. forces in Najaf, for example, faced not only door-to-door fighting, but hundreds of years of religious history. Najaf is one of the holiest cities for Shiite Moslems, just after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Shiites number more than 150 million worldwide and make up the majority of Iraq’s population, though they have long been persecuted by Saddam Hussein. The magnificent shrine of Ali, a major intellectual and pilgrimage site for centuries, holds the tomb of the revered saint of all Shiites, the son- in-law of the prophet Mohammed.

BRIGADIER GEN. VINCENT BROOKS: It’s something we know to be sacred and obviously something the people of the town know to be sacred.

JEFFREY BROWN: U.S. Military officials have made it clear they’re aware of the importance of this and other sites. Still, a misunderstanding Thursday showed how tense the situation remains.

MAN: The city, okay. The city, okay.

JEFFREY BROWN: When townspeople thought Americans were coming too close to the shrine, a brief melee ensued before the soldiers backed away. It seems as though so far the American military has been respecting these shrines — they refer to “no-target” zones.

SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: For the sake of the relationship between the United States and not only Iraq but the rest of the Islamic world, I certainly hope so because if these sites were to become a center for fighting or destroyed in any way or harmed in any way, their effect would be far beyond the confines of Iraq and far beyond the confines of 2003. That is, it would last in the memory of Muslims for a long, long time to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean they have that kind of significance that they would live on? Whatever happens today will live on for some time?

SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Very much so. Very, very much so.

JEFFREY BROWN: History in Iraq goes very deep indeed. Archeologists say that every raised hill is likely to be a site from the ancient past. Mesopotamia is literally the “land between the rivers” Tigris and Euphrates, across which American tanks now roll. Long before, the Greeks, the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians made this the “cradle of civilization” — the world’s first cities, first writing, first codes of law. The ziggurat, or temple, at Ur was built in 2100 B.C. Ur was the home of Abraham, the biblical patriarch. The arch of Ctesiphon was built in the 4th century A.D., and is still one of the longest single- span arches in the world. Cracks appeared from bombing in the first Gulf War. U.S. officials have accused the Iraqis of placing military equipment next to the site.

SPOKESMAN: This is part of the ruins of the place called Ctesiphon. What you see with the yellow lines is military equipment, communications equipment positioned right beside that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before the war began, archeologists gave the Pentagon lists of thousands of vulnerable sites, in the hopes they could be protected from bombing and tank movements. Of most importance now, of course, is the battle for Baghdad itself. Seyyed Hossein Nasr says, again, religious and cultural history is very much present.

SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: There are a number of very important buildings, which are architecturally significant in Baghdad, like the al Mustansiriya School, the university which was rebuilt– very beautiful. There is right next to Baghdad, Kadhimain, which again has a tomb of two of the Shiite imams in it, with beautiful golden cupolas and a very large area where pilgrims come.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps more important than the buildings, though, is the symbolism. Baghdad was built in 762, and for centuries was the political and cultural center of the vast Islamic world, home of the caliphs and the “Thousand and One Nights.” Saddam Hussein, speaking to his own people and the wider Muslim world, regularly invokes this Baghdad. Here, in a statement this weekend read by his spokesman:

SPOKESMAN ( Translated ): Your Baghdad can bear more than has been thrown at it. God will protect this symbol of honor, faith, and jihad even as it faces heavier attacks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nasr says that whatever Moslems worldwide think of Saddam Hussein, an attack on Baghdad comes with great historical weight.

SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Taken altogether, Baghdad is like only four or five western cities, like Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna and Rome — perhaps no other city in Europe is like that, what you might call an emblematic city, which is not only a city by itself, but represents a symbol of the whole civilization, and that has remained in the minds of Muslims to this day.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the holy sites, the universities, the shrines we’ve been talking about?

SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: That’s extremely important, if they are preserved, if there’s a sense, not only in Iraq, but outside of Iraq, that the American army was very careful in not destroying, they were not indifferent to the historical and religious treasures and backgrounds of the Iraqi people, that will help a great deal to quell anger, which is now at a very high level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Nasr, a student of history, thinks there are many reasons still to fear the coming battle and whatever follows. For Americans and their military forces, the lessons of history are all around.