Friday, October 31, 2003

They are talking about changing the Iraqi flag and national anthem, just as they replaced the old Iraqi currency.

Actually plenty of the old 250 dinar notes are still around, with Saddam's face on it, but they are to be phased out within three months.

The switch to the new dinar went pretty smoothly. People immediately dunked the new bills in water and then scrunched them up to see how durable they were, and many approved. It sure beats carrying around bricks of the old currency (1950 iraqi dinars = $1 US) .

But the flag is another matter, according to Oday Gada'an Mhessen, a second lieutenant Iraqi policeman who is assigned to the Directorate of Government Protection and who helps guard the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.

"No, we will demonstrate if they change the flag," Mhessen said. "This flag comes with the words 'God is the Greatest' and we are an Islamic country."

Told that the phrase is written in Saddam Hussein's handwriting, Mhessen thought for a moment, and leaned on his rifle. "No problem if they change the handwriting. But the words? We don't accept it. We're used to seeing this flag, we like it."

Coalition officials and the 25-member Governing Council haven't yet said how they plan to change the flag. Given some prior cultural missteps, we ought to stay tuned.

In the meantime, the city feels as if it's in a lull, as if the suspects responsible for the violence at the beginning of the week are just giving us a breather. The US Consular officer in Baghdad has just warned that there are rumors of a "day of resistance" throughout Baghdad on Saturday (the start of the working week and in this case the start of the second week of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, prayer and family gatherings). And Sunday.

How do you increase your security awareness when it's already on heightened alert?

We're already using radios (in addition to satellite phones) to communicate with each other. We have translators and drivers staying late and/or getting here early - no small feat when they can't eat or drink until 5:20 pm.

Our hotel has improved its security although to what extent seems open to debate. Some people here think it's not high-profile enough to be a top target; others think the ease of lobbing mortars and rockets from the main road make it an easy target.

A big UN food program office on the main road just opposite the side street we use to get to the hotel has just erected some blue netting above it's walls, presumably to reduce the chances of a grenade attack. We're just waiting for the booms and shudders to start again.