As hundreds of thousands in Egypt protested the iron rule of that country’s president, Iraq quietly began restoring a bronze fist of its former dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Without public announcement or debate, the authorities here ordered the reconstruction of one of the most audacious symbols in Baghdad of Mr. Hussein’s long, violent and oppressive rule: the Victory Arch, two enormous sets of crossed swords, clutched in hands modeled after his very own.
“Nuremberg and Las Vegas all rolled in one,” Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-born author and architect called the monument in “The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq,” which was published in 1991 under a pseudonym to protect himself then, even in exile.
After years of neglect and a partial dismantling in 2007 that was halted amid protests after the panels of one fist and the pommels of two swords were removed, workers recently began to put back together the detritus of Mr. Hussein’s megalomania.The restoration represents a small but potentially significant act of reconciliation with a past that remains deeply divisive nearly eight years after Mr. Hussein’s government crumpled.
“We don’t want to be like Afghanistan and the Taliban and remove things like that,” Ali al-Mousawi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said, referring to the infamous destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamian, Afghanistan, “or to be like the Germans and remove the Berlin Wall.”
“We are a civilized people,” he added, “and this monument is a part of the memories of this country.”The work is part of a $194 million beautification project ahead of the summit meeting of Arab League leaders scheduled for March in Baghdad.
That meeting is already weighted with political significance simply because of its host: Iraq, a country at odds with many of its Arab neighbors before and after the war, but now seeking a pride of place in the international community. The turmoil sweeping the Arab world right now is likely to bring even more attention to the meeting.
At a minimum, the Iraqis appear eager to polish a capital still scarred by war and decades of disrepair.
In recent weeks, the government has begun rebuilding the road from the airport, not long ago a white-knuckled gantlet through insurgent badlands. Inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the monument is located amid embassies and government buildings, workers have removed many of the ubiquitous concrete blast walls erected to protect against mortar rounds and car bombs. It has planted flowers and trees along medians and traffic circles that Arab dignitaries are likely to pass.
The impetus for preserving the monument itself, popularly known as the Crossed Swords, was the destruction of another monument built by Mr. Hussein after Iraq’s defeat in the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
A concrete sculpture of clasped hands in western Baghdad — supposed to represent Arab unity after the war — was demolished last year to make way for a highway overpass, prompting angry protests that Iraq’s authorities were trying to rewrite all of the country’s past. Mr. Mousawi said that the prime minister, then in the middle of a re-election fight he ultimately won, ordered the Victory Arch to be preserved.
Mr. Hussein ordered the arch built in 1985 in a letter later inscribed on a tablet near one pair of the swords. (It has since been defaced, his name and that of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, scratched out.)
It was a propagandistic monument to a war against Iran that neither country won, despite savage losses on both sides. It was dedicated in 1989, barely a year before the invasion of Kuwait, another lost war and, in a way, the beginning of the end of his government.
The crossed swords, said to be forged from the weapons of fallen Iraqi soldiers, bracket a parade ground and viewing stand, where Mr. Hussein reveled in the glory he felt was due to him. It is one of the largest public monuments ever built, according to Mr. Makiya’s book. At its dedication, Mr. Hussein rode a white stallion through it, passing over the helmets of Iranian soldiers that are cemented into the bases of the thrusting swords.
Most monuments, murals and other manifestations of Mr. Hussein’s power were long ago removed, beginning with his statue in Firdos Square in April 2003. A committee reviewing monuments recommended dismantling the Victory Arch in 2007, but the work was aborted shortly after it began when some Iraqi and American officials complained. It has remained in limbo, however, weeds sprouting on the parade grounds between the arches and trash gathering in piles. Few ordinary Iraqis ever pass, let alone visit, because access to the Green Zone remains restricted.
Mr. Mousawi, the spokesman, said that unlike other monuments, the Victory Arch was not inextricably linked to the abuses of Mr. Hussein’s Baath Party dictatorship. “It does not impact the freedoms and rights of Iraqis,” he said.
For many, though, it remains an awkward subject.
“Talking about this now raises questions for me,” Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, one of Iraq’s most famous sculptors, who completed the work after the original sculptor died, said by telephone from Amman, Jordan. Surprised by news of the restoration, he said he was ill and declined to discuss the matter further. “Excuse me,” he apologized.
The work has proceeded largely unnoticed. Several lawmakers contacted about the restoration expressed surprise and in some cases anger. “It will bring back the bad memories to people,” said Samira al-Mousawi, a member of Mr. Maliki’s bloc in Parliament. “It is not acceptable to bring it back.”
The political movement led by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr once led the campaign to demolish the monument. A leader of the movement, Hakim al-Zamili, suggested last week that the swords were an Arab symbol and should be preserved, but that the hands of a reviled dictator should not.
Mr. Makiya, who now lives in Cambridge, Mass., also expressed surprise, but satisfaction. “I am glad it is being restored, not because it is a great work of art but because it is such a perfect symbol of the Baathist experience,” he said in an e-mail. “It is vulgar, but vulgar in an unspeakably horrible, terrible — and therefore unique — way.”
Jehad Nga for The New York Times. Khalid A. Ali and Duraid Adnan contributed reporting.