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Wed 6 Feb 2008 10:48 AM

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Iraq raises controversial new flag

Prime Minister Al-Maliki hopes new symbol will promote 'unity and brotherhood'.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki raised Iraq's new national flag over his office for the first time on Tuesday, at a ceremony he hoped would encourage others to accept its use.

Iraq's parliament approved the banner last month after a fierce debate over replacing the previous one, which some see as tarnished by its association with Saddam Hussein's former regime but others revere as a national symbol.

Al-Maliki's office said ministers and senior officials attended the formal flag-raising ceremony "as a vanguard for raising the Iraqi flag in all departments of the Iraqi state".

Al-Maliki told his guests that the new flag would "wipe clean the past of crimes and human rights violations committed under the previous flag".

"We support the choice of the new flag. Its colours embody the historic background that all Iraqis share. This flag is now one of the national symbols that aim to promote unity and brotherhood," he said.

The new standard retains its predecessor's horizontal red, white and black stripes but drops the three green stars, which were once a symbol of Arab unity but came to be associated with the slogans of Saddam's Baath party.

This is the second time the design of the flag has been changed since Saddam was overthrown by a US-led invasion.

Earlier, the design of the slogan "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greater) was changed, as the earlier script was said to be in Saddam's own handwriting. The new banner retains the Islamic slogan, but in a stylised green font.

The changes have nevertheless proved controversial.

In northern Iraq, the autonomous Kurdish minority rarely allows the Iraqi flag to fly over official buildings, preferring its own national banner with its golden sunburst motif.

But for many Arabs in the rest of Iraq, the traditional national banner, with its stars, had become a rallying point for an often divided people in the difficult and violent years since the US invasion.

The Iraqi football team won the Asian Cup last year under the former flag. It is ubiquitous in Baghdad, where it flies on official buildings, is daubed on shopfronts, flaps on car dashboards and is painted on highway flyovers.

So far, the new banner can only be seen over the prime minister's office.

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