In Hussein's hometown, many want him back

Enduring appeal suggests difficulty of overcoming ethnic ties in a new Iraq

War In Iraq

April 16, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TIKRIT, Iraq - A few friends gathered on a Tikrit sidewalk yesterday and reminisced about the good old days under President Saddam Hussein.

"We love him," said Madullah Hachem, a government worker with a jet-black beard and dazzling white tunic. "He gave money to the poor. He helped every man. And he made the city secure. Saddam Hussein loved God. We want him back."

Hachem and a couple of his friends nodded cautiously when asked if Hussein could return to power.

"God willing," one intoned.

Down the block, a few dozen U.S. Marines in their Humvees and armored vehicles trained their guns on the city's main square. Others hung their laundry to dry in the rose garden of the city's main presidential palace. In the wheat fields to the north, three helicopter gunships hunted down Iraqis still fighting in the vanished president's name.

The Baathist regime's power snapped here, in Hussein's hometown, in a matter of a few hours this week, after many of the 2,500 Republican Guard soldiers assigned to defend the city shed their uniforms and went home. This final ignominious collapse, in the city where the regime was expected to make its last stand, ended Hussein's 35-year reign of terror.

But many here still regard the fallen leader with affection and loyalty. In Tikrit, his numerous public portraits have not been defaced with graffiti, stones or bullets, as in other parts of the country. Statues of Hussein, including one of him striding into the future and another depicting him on horseback, remain defiantly on their pedestals.

People on the street do not wave or give American soldiers the thumbs-up sign, as in some parts of the country. Instead, many respond with cold stares and muttered words.

Hussein's enduring appeal suggests how hard it will be for Iraqis to overcome ethnic and religious loyalties and work together in a new government. It may also demonstrate how the civil disorder after his government's collapse might be exploited by foes of the American-led forces.

Tikrit is Hussein's tribal homeland. He was born in a nearby village, and citizens are naturally proud of their native son. The Iraqi dictator repaid the loyalty of his al-Khatab tribe and other Tikrit natives through lavish spending on local public works projects, including the construction of impressive roads, bridges, public buildings and palaces.

But Hussein's most important accomplishment, several Tikrit residents said yesterday, was maintaining law and order.

As occurred throughout Iraq, people in Tikrit went on a rampage after the regime's collapse. Looters stripped many public buildings, including scores of mansions on the grounds of the area's main presidential palace complex. They took lavish furniture, fixtures, rugs and artworks. A fire burned out of control yesterday in a residential neighborhood.

Although much of the looting was clearly done by Tikrit residents, the group that convened in the street yesterday unanimously blamed outsiders, in particular the Kurds of northern Iraq, America's allies in fighting the Baghdad regime.

The people in the street said they were fed up.

"The American people are not good people," thundered Hassim Akhmad Salah, a tall, brown-eyed man with a rounded belly, gray beard and the fire of a prophet in his eyes.

He tugged at a listener's shirt with thick fingers, shaking the fabric with rage.

"They support these people who steal the shirt off your back!"

Walid Zedan, a vegetable seller whose cousin was killed in the fighting for Tikrit, said all he asks now from Americans is law and order and electric power, so he can switch on the lights in his home again.

"I am a simple man," he said.

Before, he said, he had waited for the Americans to come and provide security. But now he regards the Marines as accomplices of the thieves who robbed Tikrit's public buildings.

"They are working together," he said, because the Marines ignore the looters.

The Marines say they chase looters away when they can, but are under orders to hold the city, not police it. Yesterday, they arrested four men prowling through homes near Tikrit's stadium, where the soldiers have set up their compound. But the men certainly would not have been arrested had they chosen a neighborhood a few blocks away.

Vigilantes in a neighborhood across the Tigris River fought a gunbattle yesterday morning with a gang of looters in the main intersection. Bullets whizzed past motorists. Three looters were said to have been killed.

During the fighting, someone ignited a trench filled with oil, one of thousands prepared by the Baghdad regime in hopes of hampering strikes by American and British aircraft. An inky smoke cloud rose over Tikrit's skyline throughout the cloudy, rain-spattered afternoon.

American soldiers, meanwhile, kept busy trying to disarm Tikrit's population.

Many residents fled during the bombing of the numerous government buildings. They started to return yesterday, forming small mobs at Marine checkpoints.

The soldiers frisked every man and searched every car entering the city. More than a dozen weapons were seized, and rumors keep circulating that guerrilla fighters, called fedayeen, are active in the area.

No one seemed surprised. Tikrit's citizens were the backbone of the Baathist regime, serving in key military and security posts. Twenty-two people were killed here when Americans bombed the communications center.

"During the day, they're your friend," said a Marine staff sergeant, who asked that his name not be used. "During the night, it's another story."

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