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Rumsfeld painting star attraction at exhibition

Photograph of U.S. defense secretary sparks rage, inspiration for artist
/ Source: The Associated Press

Muayad Muhsin was both inspired and enraged by a photo of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld slumped on an airplane seat with his army boots up in front of him.

“It symbolized America’s soulless might and arrogance,” said Muhsin, whose similar painting of Rumsfeld will be unveiled in an exhibition opening in Baghdad on Monday.

The painting, expected to be the show’s main attraction, and the rest of the exhibit illustrate the simmering anger of Iraqis with the United States as the country continues to endure violence, sectarian tensions and crime three years after Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

Muhsin’s Rumsfeld painting is not the first artistic expression by Iraqis of the perceived injustices by the United States in their country, but it’s the first to depict a top member of the Bush administration. After President Bush, most Iraqis see Rumsfeld as the man behind the invasion of their oil-rich country and the chief architect of U.S. military actions in Iraq.

Those who closely follow him remember his infamous comment — “Stuff happens” — when asked why U.S. troops did not actively seek to stop the lawlessness in the Iraqi capital in the weeks that followed their capture of the city in April 2003.

Another memorable Rumsfeld comment, also made in 2003, was his suggestion that Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction were deeply hidden in Iraq. “It’s a big country,” he said.

Inspiration for 'Picnic'
Muhsin first saw the Rumsfeld photo about 18 months ago. He went to work right away, but did not finish the painting — entitled “Picnic” — until about two weeks ago.

The oil-on-canvas, 5-by-3-foot work shows Rumsfeld in a blue jacket, tie, khaki pants and army boots reading from briefing papers. His boots are resting on what appears to be an ancient stone.

While Rumsfeld’s image is true to life, he sits next to a partially damaged statue of a lion standing over a human — a traditional image of strength during the ancient Babylon civilization. The statue’s stone base is ripped open, revealing shelves from which white piece of papers are flying away, later turning into birds soaring high into an ominously gray sky.

Muhsin said the symbolism has to do with Washington’s repeated assertions in the months before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that Saddam’s regime had weapons of mass destruction, the cornerstone in the Bush administration’s argument for going to war.

No such weapons turned up, but the Bush administration maintained that removing Saddam’s regime alone justified the decision to invade Iraq.

“They did not find the weapons and, instead, found the annals of an ancient civilization that turned into birds of love, peace and knowledge,” said Muhsin, himself a native of the area around the central Iraqi city of Babil, or Babylon, south of Baghdad.

“Rumsfeld’s boots deliver a message from America: ‘We rule the world,”’ Muhsin, 41, told The Associated Press in an interview. “It speaks of America’s total indifference to what the rest of the world thinks.”

Well-placed signatureMuhsin said he signed the painting in the middle, instead of the customary bottom corner, to avoid having it under Rumsfeld’s boots.

Muhsin’s works borrow heavily from Iraq’s ancient history. Images of historical ruins and other ancient landmarks are often depicted in the background. His human subjects, like those in most of the 15 paintings to be exhibited, often cut tormented figures.

The central subject of his “Execution Plaza,” another attraction in the exhibition, is a slender woman in a red dress, blindfolded and standing barefoot on dry ground. In the background is a twilight sky dotted with clouds and a distant mosque minaret.

Muhsin’s opposition to the U.S. military presence in Iraq is matched by his resentment of Saddam’s regime. A veteran of Iraq’s ruinous 1980-88 war against neighboring Iran, he was discharged for just a day in 1990 before he was called back for duty when Iraq occupied Kuwait.

“Saddam took the best years of my life,” he lamented, speaking outside a store room where he keeps four of the 15 paintings scheduled for display.

The departure of Saddam’s regime did not improve things, he said.

“The Americans brought us rosy dreams but left us with nightmares, they came with a broad smile but gave us beheaded bodies and booby-trapped car.”