In Hussein's town, a day now like any other

National holiday to mark birthday isn't observed in Tikrit for 1st time in years

Postwar Iraq

April 29, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TIKRIT, Iraq -- The birthday party's over for Saddam Hussein, even here in his hometown and political stronghold 110 miles north of Baghdad.

Hussein turned 66 yesterday, assuming he's still alive, but no bash was thrown at the gleaming, marble-columned complex built for the annual nationwide celebration of his birth on April 28.

For the first time in years, the only noisemakers were the U.S. tanks clattering around beneath the big red "28" emblazoned on the palatial facade.

About 150 chanting Hussein loyalists did rally outside a nearby mosque, prompting U.S. soldiers to tell the crowd to go home. It was the latest sign of tension between troops and Tikritis standing by their fallen leader; residents said a tank crushed two cars during a pre-birthday rally Saturday.

Still, the recent demonstrations have been tame compared with the three-day festivals that in past years drew top Iraqi officials -- but rarely the security-conscious Hussein -- to the flat landscape of Tikrit.

All across Iraq, April 28 has reverted from a national holiday to a normal day. In Baghdad, for example, Arbatash Ramadan Street looked like any commercial strip rebounding from war. Gone were the dancers, singers and slogan-shouters who flooded it in past years, replaced by growing numbers of shoppers.

Not only is there little reason to cheer for Hussein today, but many Iraqis did so in the past only because they thought the regime's myriad eyes were watching them.

Even so, Tikrit is a special case. The city on the Tigris River benefited disproportionately from Hussein's 24 years in power, and some residents wish they could keep those perquisites.

Hussein's largesse paid for public improvements such as new roads and a modern hospital. He put relatives and members of his tribe in plum government jobs. He erected a mosque in honor of his late father, Hussein al-Majid.

Tikrit's links to the regime, while producing envy or anger around Iraq, spawned such a sense of civic pride, arrogance even, that people from elsewhere in the north falsely claimed the city as their own, said Mahmoud Hashim, an appliance salesman.

"Nowadays," he said with a wry smile, "it is the opposite."

Now, some residents are trying hard to portray Tikrit as a typical city, nevermind the mammoth palace with a front gate topped by two statues of a warrior Hussein on horseback.

"Iraqis imagine Tikrit as a big castle -- a luxury city," said Nafa Hazim, 35, a lawyer. "This is the real Tikrit. You can see the truth: a normal city, normal buildings, sometimes less than normal buildings, a simple life."

In some ways it does look like a normal city. It is relatively clean, with a sleepy feel that may or may not be due to the tanks on its streets. The business district consists of several streets with one-story shops.

Humble origins

Hussein was born just outside Tikrit, in the village of al-Oja, in 1937. His family's simple mud hut still stands, carefully tended by relatives to show off his humble origins.

Hussein's father died or disappeared before he was born, according to Sandra Mackey in The Reckoning. His mother, Subha, then married Ibrahim al-Hassan, a man Hussein depicts in official biographies as an abusive brute.

Despite his hard childhood, Hussein retained, through his birth father, prized membership in the al-Bejat clan of the Albu Nasir tribe. He would use this connection to help build up his power and, later, to keep it by placing tribesmen in trusted roles.

On the Baghdad-to-Mosul highway yesterday, signs that one was entering Hussein country were evident well south of Tikrit.

At one point, two dozen men shouted and waved rifles in the air as they converged on the two northbound lanes. One man bounced a framed portrait of Hussein up and down over his head.

As cars slowed down or stopped, some of the men began firing repeatedly into the air, presumably in celebration. They scattered only when a convoy of U.S. Army trucks approached minutes later.

Farther north, in Mosul, Americans were still feeling some resistance. U.S. forces shot and killed one Iraqi when he tried to ram into a battalion command center; another man was killed after firing on another U.S. installation. After dark, gunfire could be heard in different parts of the city.

In Tikrit, beyond the "Down USA" message scrawled on a road sign, a dozen children held a rally of their own. They waved Iraqi flags and unfurled a picture of Hussein as they danced in the street, unintentionally undercutting their message with their youth and small number.

"With our blood and souls," they chanted, thinly, "we shall redeem you, Saddam Hussein!"

`They had a lot to lose'

Members of the Army's 4th Infantry Division had taken up temporary residence inside the birthday complex.

"There are definitely some hard-liners out there who are upset," said Capt. Andy Kahmann. "They had a lot to lose."

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