Hussein's hometown hub of fealty
Having reaped benefits from the dictator's rise to power, Tikrit remains a city devoted to the fallen leader.
The Khashmani family could see that the war was rumbling close, and so they reached up and removed the heavy ceramic relief of Saddam Hussein from their visiting room wall. They did not want Mr. Hussein's idealized image - a portrait of the dictator as a young man - to be damaged by US bombing raids.Skip to next paragraph
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Now Hussein's likeness, bulky as a tombstone, sits on the floor behind their dining table. It is just out of sight, but - like the man himself - not quite gone. Neither is deep loyalty to Hussein in the fallen dictator's hometown Tikrit. People here express sadness for his demise, outrage at US marines patrolling their streets, and insecurity over the future.
"I love Saddam Hussein," says Ayyad Khashmani, slipping into tears in front of a dozen gathered family members. "What's happening now is not good because the US wants to divide Iraq. Saddam Hussein wanted good things for Iraq and for all the Arab countries."
Or, at least, that's what he wanted for Tikrit. Hussein was 10 when he moved to his uncle's house in this once-scrappy town on the Tigris River. After his rise to power, he poured petro-dollars into developing Tikrit, giving it unheard of amenities: a six-lane highway, carpeting in schools, and a modern 400-bed hospital. Compared to average Iraqis, Tikritis have come to live famously well.
So while Baghdad held anti-US demonstrations - mostly to protest the lack of electrical power - Tikrit is the nucleus of defiance. Although intelligence assessments that Hussein would hide out here are unconfirmed, people in Tikrit behave almost as if their president were still ruling.
Given his largess, it is perhaps not surprising they remain loyal to Hussein. Many of his relatives came from here and benefited from his rise to power by winning plum positions in the Baath Party regime. People here say they will be watching the US military occupation of Iraq and the transition to an interim government. If either falters, the disgruntled residents of Tikrit could spearhead a rebellion or power grab.
After all, here stands what may be Iraq's only untouched statue of Hussein, cutting a dark, trim military figure on horseback. Framed photographs adorn each lamppost through the town. Jingoistic billboards and painted-tile portraits stand unscathed. It as if time has stood still here, despite the fact that every other likeness of Saddam across Iraq has been destroyed, defaced, or reduced to humiliating doodles.
"Do not photograph it," orders a young Tikrit man who pulled over with a carload of friends to question a foreign reporter inspecting a rare find here: a massive screen print picture of Hussein that had been slashed.
Next door is the Tikrit Museum, half-destroyed by a US bombing raid. For locals, it is a blaring attempt by the West to erase their culture; one US official says the museum was an enormous propaganda organ for the dictator's cult of personality.
Mr. Khashmani, once responsible for finding new drilling sites for the state-run oil company, maintains comfortable homes here and in Baghdad. But all of it shrinks in comparison to the opulent palaces Hussein built here, sitting like an Arabian Versailles overlooking the Tigris. Most people in Tikrit have not glimpsed the excess of Hussein's never-never-land, with its golden faucets, sparkling chandeliers, and endless rooms. One palace here named Zulfaqar, begun in 1993 with the express purpose of defying United Nations sanctions - so says a plaque at the entrance - boasts a movie theatre and a domed room that resembles a mosque, with the Arabic initials "S.H." painted in the places where "Allah" or "Mohammed" would normally be.