It took Cpl. Edward Chin just seconds to hang an American flag on the head of Saddam Hussein's statue in central Baghdad, but it's a move that's likely to be debated for years to come.
The mood of Iraqi civilians was briefly muted in Baghdad Wednesday as Chin climbed up and covered Saddam's face with an American flag.
The crowd's loud cheers faded, and in less than a minute the Stars and Stripes was removed from the massive statue and replaced with Iraq's black, white and red flag.
Chin's move touched a sensitive chord among Arabs and irritated U.S. military leaders who want Iraqis to view U.S. forces as liberators, not occupiers.
Chin, of the 3rd battalion, 4th Marines regiment, says he was just following orders in the minutes before the statue was pulled to the ground in a joint effort by jubilant Iraqis and U.S. troops.
"I was just trying my best to get the chain around his neck and put the flag on his head," Chin told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "Pretty much at the moment I was just doing what I was told to do by my commanding officer," he said.
The televised gesture drew mixed reactions around the world and anger from a commentator on the Arab news network al Arabiya.
"That should have been the Iraqi flag," said an al Arabiya announcer.
U.S. military leaders have set boundaries on American flag displays in an effort to avoid provoking Arab emotions over the war in Iraq. U.S. troops have been ordered not to display flags, whether the American flag or those of their military unit, in Iraq.
When Marines briefly raised the flag after moving into the southern Iraqi city of Umm Qasr in late March, the commander of the war in Iraq Gen. Tommy Franks said he was pleased with their decision to removed the flag quickly.
"I think that, in zeal, people will want to represent that they have achieved a certain milestone," he said, following the Umm Qasr incident. "And if you're from our country, then one of the first things that can pop into the young man's mind is to raise his national colors." But, Franks said, the job "had to do with liberation and not occupation."
Chin, from New York, says that in retrospect he can understand why some people might be upset by the gesture, but he says the American flag wasn't blanketed over Saddam's head in an effort to anger anyone. He says it was just their way of being part of the celebration that was taking place all around them.
"It was a crazy experience. A lot of people — Iraqi people — downstairs below us chanting, and just being able to do that … I'm still blown away," Chin said.
"And the flag — it was on the Pentagon when it got hit on 9/11. That was the same flag, and me being from New York, it kind of all goes together a little bit. It was a team effort, which made it even better, you know," he said.
Family Is Proud
Chin, 23, and his family are ethnic Chinese from Myanmar, formerly Burma. The family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when Chin was just a week old. Chin, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, joined the Corps in 1999 and was assigned to the First Tank Battalion at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., before being shipped off to Kuwait in January.
His parents, Stanley and Lai Chin, said they did not know exactly where their son was until Tuesday, when his fiancee received a call from Chin saying he was OK and about to go into Baghdad.
They were watching the live pictures coming from Baghdad Wednesday when they spotted their son.
"Ah, that's him. My son. I so proud, and then I so happy, and then I cry, you know," Chin's mother Lai said. "I quickly call my daughter, and 'You know, my son is on the TV.'"
"I thought, 'Oh, my son, you are making history, you are part of the Iraqis' liberation," said his father, Stanley Chin.
Chin's fiancee, Anna Fu, 22, a senior at New York Institute of Technology in Manhattan, said she knew Chin meant no disrespect in draping the flag over the statue.
"He probably just wanted to show that freedom has come to the Iraqi people," she said.