WASHINGTON - While the battle for Baghdad has so far been less than the bloody quagmire that military planners feared, a more likely spot for a violent last stand of Saddam Hussein's loyalists could be the northern city of Tikrit, Hussein's ancestral home and the spiritual center of the tribal ties that brought him to power.
Many of the Iraqi leader's most trusted friends and advisers come from Tikrit, as do a disproportionate number of security officers and Republican Guard troops. Unlike most of Iraq, where allegiance to Hussein was imposed with brute force, Tikrit has been largely coddled by the regime and rewarded for its loyalty with paved roads and new schools.
Analysts warn that U.S. troops are unlikely to get the friendly welcome in Hussein's birthplace that they have received in some other cities. If Hussein has any fanatical loyalists left in Iraq, then Tikrit is a likely place to find them, they say.
"I think it's quite possible we could see some very vicious fighting there," said Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow and security specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "A lot of the people there know they don't have a future in post-Saddam Iraq, and they might not think they have any choice but to fight to the death."
Pentagon officials are "very focused" on the small city on the Tigris River, and they suggested yesterday that the Army's tank-heavy 4th Infantry Division, just arriving in the country, might soon rumble toward Baghdad to reinforce troops there in preparation for an assault on Tikrit.
While Tikrit was thought to have been lightly defended when the war began, many Iraqi soldiers who abandoned their positions elsewhere are thought to have simply wandered home - which for many is in or near Tikrit. U.S. Special Forces claim to have sealed off the road from Baghdad to Tikrit last week to stem any retreat and retrenchment by Hussein or his followers.
Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that U.S. bombers are pounding troop positions around the city, as ground forces try to determine the fighting strength of the enemy.
`Very, very wary'
"If anyone starts throwing around ... `Fortress Tikrit,' I don't think we're prepared to say that at this point," he said at a Pentagon briefing. "But I think we are prepared to be very, very wary of what they may have and prepared for a big fight."
Hussein is said to have been born in a mud hut in the village of al-Oja, on the outskirts of Tikrit about 100 miles north of Baghdad. He was born into the tight al-Bu Nasir tribe and raised at the center of Iraq's "Sunni Triangle," the geographic area in which the country's Sunni Muslim population is concentrated.
By the time he became vice president in 1968, Iraq's ruling Baath Party and much of the government leadership was already stacked with Tikritis, many from the al-Bu Nasir tribe.
But Hussein, obsessed with loyalty and determined to surround himself with compatriots, showed even more preference for fellow Tikritis when he became president in 1979. Among the Tikritis in power when the war began were Iraq's directors of security and intelligence, along with several commanders of the Republican Guard.
"He gave huge largess to his hometown - the schools, the manicured boulevards - they were doing quite well in Tikrit," said Robert G. Rabil, manager of the Iraqi Research and Documentation Project at the Iraqi Foundation in Washington. "I think it's going to fall ... but the people there will not rejoice. They were part of the regime."
The posters and statues of Hussein found throughout the country are said to abound tenfold inside Tikrit, though few are certain because foreigners are rarely allowed inside the city. In last year's national referendum, considered little more than a propaganda stunt, many Tikritis were said to have pricked their fingers to mark their ballots for Hussein in blood.
United Nations weapons inspectors have described the outskirts of Tikrit as a long and imposing string of fortified military installations, leading to a city of 30,000 that is dominated by the country's largest and most opulent presidential palace.
But as a military fortress, the city is far from ideal, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Most of its buildings are spread thin along the western bank of the Tigris, with plenty of open space for maneuvering tanks or spotting targets from the air. Its military fortifications and underground bunkers, assuming it has some, are more of a hiding place than a fighting position, easily flushed out with modern bombs, he said.
"The city itself is almost undefendable," Cordesman said. "And no one else in Iraq is going to come to its defense. There isn't anyone in the town whose family hasn't benefited from the regime."
Saladin's birthplace, too
Hussein is not the only fabled leader to hail from Tikrit. The Kurdish warrior Saladin was born there and became a hero of Islam for fighting the Crusaders and capturing Jerusalem. An official Iraqi postage stamp depicts Hussein and Saladin, side by side.
Hussein is said to fancy himself a modern-day Saladin, a foreboding notion for any invading forces. When Richard I marched on Jerusalem in the Third Crusade, Saladin is said to have stripped the countryside of food and poisoned its wells.
"I'm not certain there will be any fighting at all. It's best not to assume anything at this point," Eisenstadt said. "But given the city's proximity to Saddam Hussein and the regime, you have to be prepared for it. The people there might think they have nothing left to lose."