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October 11, 2005

The Selling Of One Iraq

(Sorry for the extra long post.  Given the significance — and hypocrisy — of the Iraqi referendum, however, I felt it was worth this broad sweep.  …And no, the BAG will not be examining yesterday’s photo of the suicide bomber who blew himself up in front of the election billboard.)


This is my fifth look at Iraqi election posters, and the third dealing with the constitution campaign.  The previous entry (Held At Pen Point – link) looked at possible militaristic undertones in promoting the document; the question of whether the constitution PR appealed to, or exploited a female sensibility; and the extent to which the posters were created for (or even, by) Western interests.

The current crop of images seems a lot more professional and varied than the August examples (which were aimed at encouraging legislators to complete a draft constitution on deadline).  They also seem a lot more like propaganda.  In light of the constitution’s endorsement of a balkanized Iraq; the recent attempt to subvert election rules to insure the document could not be rejected; and an internal U.N. analysis– written on September 15th, and leaked to Newsweek — stating that the constitution is:  a "model for the territorial division of the State," the "One Iraq"  theme of this campaign could not be a bigger farce.

(I realize, by the way, there are two levels of spin to consider here.  There are the posters themselves, and there is the way the posters are depicted by the photo press.  Although both perspectives are interesting, I confine this post to the former, inviting you to weigh in on the latter.)

Short of a formal survey, I organized the posters into three categories: One Iraq; The Next Generation; and Iraqi Women).

One Iraq

Different posters use different strategies to visualize the
(disingenuous) notion of a unified country.  There are the hands
holding up the country; the clasping hands; and the fingers with the
lapel pin.


In this poster, two giant hands emerge out of a vast sea of people
to hold up the country of Iraq.  Do you notice the onimous quality of
the sky?  Given the three primary entities struggling for power, is it
interesting at all that two hands emerge with a hold on the country?
Could one hand be Shiite and the other Kurd?


In the "interlocked hands" poster, The first two lines say "We build
(or "are building’) our country by joining our hands", and the third
line says Iraq (Al-Iraq). The last line, in very small print, says:
"One country – one future."

Strangely, this is also one of the few government
posters that evokes the Iraqi flag. Perhaps the flag has been
de-emphasized as part of the push for regional autonomy? (As you see
below, the other posters mostly steer clear of Iraq’s traditional or
customary symbols of nationalism.)



(The remainder of the commentary is provided by co-analyst Umm
Abdullah, who lives in Kuwait and has been a regular commenter on the

I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone really wears lapel pins
except in the U.S., do they? I guess they think that with Iraqis
identifying themselves as members of religious sects or ethnic groups,
they want to remind them of the concept of one unified Iraq. And the
country image seems to be all white, sort of pure and unsullied by the
reality of violence and bloodshed… But the colors, as usual, are odd;
blue has no significance, and there’s no sign of the Arab colors:
green, red, white, and black.

I was asked if the first image in this series depicted a cleric
– because it might be on a robe instead of a button-down shirt. Well,
Iraqi men do wear those robes, although they don’t have any lapels!

Thinking about it further, it occurred to me that this is the
only image that would be acceptable to the strict religious Sunnis
("Salafis", "wahabbis", and others), since they don’t allow pictures of
people. (I don’t know about Shiites, but I think they must have no
problem with them, since they’re always carrying pictures of their

I’m curious about those fingernails – do they have nail polish
on them? Otherwise, I would have thought they were a man’s fingers. So,
is the white fabric a men’s robe, or a woman’s blouse, or what?
Actually though, it might also be a curtain.

It’s hard to read what this one says, but it’s something like: "On (some date) we will vote for Iraq – only for Iraq".

The Next Generation


The poster with the man wearing coveralls says something like:
"Whatever we belonged to, we’re one people for one country". I’m told
that "whatever we belonged to" would be understood to mean "which sect
we belonged to" (e.g., Sunni or Shiite).

I notice that none of the men have beards, which would
otherwise indicate that they were very religious. But they’re not
clean-shaven either, which would indicate a kind of secular, maybe
pro-Western attitude. So they’ve chose the middle way here.

Iraqi Women



This first photo shows a woman in hijab, but it’s not really the
kind of hijab that you’d normally see in Iraq. I’m wording this
delicately, because I can’t judge someone’s piety, but this is the kind
of thing worn by some women in South Asia (Indian subcontinent,
Afghanistan, etc.), as a kind of cultural thing and not really
religious. (Think of Benazir Bhutto, who captivates reporters by
constantly letting hers slide down almost off her head and than lifting
it back up…)

If you wear a hijab for religious reasons, you don’t just drape
something over your head and let all your hair show. I’m not actually
in Iraq, so I can’t say for sure, but I doubt that you would see this
there; even if women feel like they’re forced to wear a hijab, they
probably would actually wear it the way Iraqi women wear it, and not
like this. Which makes me wonder again where these posters are made and
by whom.

This second poster has a logo for "Women for Women" (
which is an NGO that works with women in war-torn countries. I’ve heard
some good things about one of their women working in Iraq, Manal Omar,
who is Muslim and wears hijab (although I’m always wary of these
organizations, because usually they don’t want to accept Islamic
traditions – but this one seems better than most).

Anyway, I guess this poster is made by them, and they seem more
in touch with what Iraqi women actually look like, at least. And they
have the real Iraqi flag. The large letters say "Our constitution [is]
our future". I see a big difference between this one, and all the other
posters we’ve looked at. The woman seems like a regular person, the
colors are warm, and I think that Iraqis could relate to it.

In comparison, all of these others photos are kind of cool and distant.

(Previous Iraq election posts, in chronological order: Girls of the Constitution (a look at portrayal of women on pro-constitution posters); Held At Pen Point (examines support for constitution writing process);   Poster Boy For The West (focusing on Allawi’s bid during parliamentary elections); Iraq Election Final: What’s Up A Sleeve (regarding the visual push for turnout in the parliamentary vote); and Let’s See That Glue Stick, Soldier! (looking at the desperate deployment of U.S. soldiers as electioneers).

(Thanks very much to Umm Abdullah for the observations and insight.)

Image 1: Faleh Kheiber/Reuters. October 9, 2005. Baghdad. Via
YahooNews. image 2: Qassem Zein/AFP. Date Unavailable. Najaf. Via
YahooNews. image 3: Atef Hassan/Reuters. September 28, 2005. Basra. Via
YahooNews. image 4: Karim Kadim/AP. September 28, 2005. Baghdad. Via
YahooNews. image 5: Alla Al-Marjani/AP. Najaf. October 1 2005. Via
YahooNews. image 6: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/File. Baghdad. September 18,
2005. Via YahooNews. image 7: Karim Kadim/AP. October 8, 2005. Baghdad.
Via YahooNews. image 8: Hadi Mizban/A.P. October 15, 2005. Baghdad. Via

  • gleex

    Wow, great piece. I am going to have to chew on these images for a while and come back. I love the “country of puzzle pieces”. The one with the police(?) uniformed man looking at the poster of the woman is also great. I notice a soda can in that picture as well (though its not an American Coke can).
    The picture of the pin looks like “under my thumb” to me, since the finger and thumb are so huge in relation to the flag (pin).

  • Marysz

    In the background of the last poster “Women for Women,” we see a young woman, probably an unmarried student. But what kind of future is there for her in the new Iraq state? The woman in the foreground gives us the answer—outside of marriage and motherhood, there is no future for her. Is this poster really for women? Or is it to reassure men that women’s citizenship will be secondary in the new Iraq? The student is shown in an interior space, possibly a classroom. She’s colorfully dressed and is intent on study and self-improvement. She’s a real individual. But the mother is another story. She doesn’t look much older than the student, but she’s in black from head to toe. She’s more of an archetype than a real person. She’s reminiscent of the iconic mothers who were prominent in Nazi and Soviet propaganda posters. Judging by the light on the mother’s face, she seems to be outdoors. Her right hand, at the bottom of the poster is reaching out, almost as if she’s begging. The only rights she has are the ones men are willing to grant her. If women want to show themselves in public spaces in contemporary Iraq, they must be willing to behave in traditional roles.

  • Purple

    Also, in the last poster, the child would appear to me to be a boy. So the implied message here is that the women bear sons.

  • Kevin

    The concept of advertising/marketing/PR has always bugged the heck out of me. After reading “Subliminal Seduction” many years ago, I concluded that all ads are propaganda and need to be viewed with a jaundiced, critical eye.
    That said, I have many friends who toil in the field and receive their daily bread from such work. I do not fault or judge them for it.
    But THIS series of photos drives me crazy!!! It looks for all the world as if Ogilvy & Mather was hired to produce this extravaganza of propaganda on behalf of the Iraq elections (at the behest of someone in the White House).
    Note — I only use O&M because that was the big firm operating here in Houston back in the day when I worked for AA&Co. WAY back in the day.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    are there any anti-constitution / vote posters ?
    …or is the opposed and/or ambivalent citizens’ sentiment expressed more often by graffiti ?
    it would be interesting, i think, to read all the writing on the wall.

  • bg

    You can visit this blog
    if you want Iraqi perspective. Site has links to other Iraqi post-ers, as in bloggers.
    I see the person IN FRONT of the poster in relation to the poster in all of these images. There is always a real person juxtaposed. Some mirror the image on the poster, some, like the man in front of the kettle, seem not related, most seem to have a visual relationship. Including the cop-type man in a white shirt with a black hat in front of the white draped woman. The woman with baby mirrors the arm movement of the woman directly above in the poster.

  • Molly

    What are the two guys in the first picture doing? Clearing out rubble? No, that’s Pakistan… Throwing out giant Honey comb cereal to passers-by? Symbolically destroying a wall erected of those bricks? Street drama?

  • Salam Adil

    (FYI – I write as an Iraqi who has grown up outside Iraq)
    I have followed the constitution as news and as text but this is the first time that I have seen how it is sold as pictures – so I must comment on this..
    The first thing I notice is how completely unrelated the posters are from the reality of the constitution, day-to-day life, or even the hopes of ordinary Iraqis.
    The text of the constitution talks about (a new concept to Iraqis) federalism and a new way to distribute the national oil wealth. Another new concept is to have explicitly religious clauses in the constitution. I was hoping to see posters that would explain how these would be a good thing for me.
    Yet the posters show unity and a single country and do not even try to expalain why federalism should be a good idea. People looking for security, wealth and some return of normal services are only offered smiles and free lapel pins!
    Also the choice of imagery of the government posters is quite revealing. This is something this post already noted – that is the issue of the Iraqi flag. If you remember, a year ago, the new government created, voted for and adopted a new national flag (in white, blue and yellow). Yet it was forced to cancel it because of popular opposition and from then on had to use the pre-war flag of Iraq and the national Arab colours. The national flag is as big an issue for Iraqis as it is for Americans. Imagine American constitutional posters without a hint of red, white and blue. You would have people marching up and down Washington crying treason and shouting that the government is out of touch with reality. Here we have the text talk about unity yet the image does not evoke any form of national identity. Even the poster held up by the schoolgirls. The image of the national flag looks as though it is fading into the background – positively melting away.

  • ummabdulla

    Marysz, just because a woman values her role as a wife and mother doesn’t mean that she can’t do anything else. Even Arab women who consider themselves feminists don’t see a contradiction between being a mother and being able to study and work – and contribute to society in other ways.
    I realize that the black abayas (overgarments) have different connotations for Westerners, but I wear one (and I am a Westerner), and it doesn’t have the symbolism that you might think. It’s what I put on when I go out in public; it’s a normal thing to wear.
    I do agree with your point that whoever made that poster realized that using images of traditional women would be best. Many people-women and men – would resent the idea that foreigners are coming in and telling them what to do, without respecting their traditions.(Obviously, everyone knows that this is what’s happening, but they wouldn’t want to actually show it that way.)

  • Marysz

    Thanks for your comment on my post, ummabdulla. I agree with you that women work, study and raise their families and there’s no inherent contradiction in that. What rights will women have in the new Iraq?

  • MonsieurGonzo

    12-OCT : “The Shiites and Kurds have agreed that the newly elected parliament after December 15 will reopen negotiations with the Sunni Arabs on the constitution.
    This step was enough to convince the Iraqi Islamic Party to drop its call for a Sunni Arab rejection fo the constitution in the October 15 referendum.
    This whole episode strikes me as bizarre, since Iraqis are now voting on a constitution that may be subsequently changed at will! As with the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, in which they had no idea for whom they were voting for the most part, so in the referendum they will have no idea for what they are voting.
    The Bush administration is just making them jump through hoops in hopes that
    [the vote] will look good and “democratic” back in Peoria and help Republicans get elected in 06.
    If the constitution is not ready to be voted on, they should have taken the 6-month extension and worked on it some more. This weird procedure of voting on a document that is riddled with escape hatches such that key issues will be decided later by parliament cannot lead anywhere good.

    -Juan Cole

  • Anon

    The puzzle poster actually says “One country, one people, one constitition”.

  • coal_train

    When viewed from closer and head-on, the poster with the hands lifting Iraq above the crowd looks like the hands are bound or handcuffed by the Arabic script around the wrists. See this more clearly at
    The interlocked hands looks like arm-wrestling, like a struggle. In the one with the girl at the desk and the woman holding the baby, the profile of Iraq looks like the girl’s shadow, as if she represents Iraq. The smiling man in overalls looks like he is pumping gas, as if Iraq is our gas station. The lapel pins and many others show Iraq as a solid shape, or a blank slate, ie no internal features, uniform across the country, no history, no internal boundaries.

  • ummabdulla

    I don’t think it’s entirely clear what rights women will have, but two things that are listed clearly in the constitution are the right to free education at all levels, and health care. These are things that really matter to women’s lives.

  • ummabdulla

    Anonymous is right about the translation. I think this translation might have come from the caption at Yahoo News; when they did have translations, they were not always correct.

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