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.

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.

But the people of Tikrit are so beholden to the idea of their homegrown man's greatness - or brainwashed from years under his rule - that they exonerate him for the abuses of the regime. It's not the Baath Party they adored, people here say, but Hussein himself.

"The generals around him lied to him. 'We can do this, we can do that.' They lied," blurts Khashmani. In these parts, Hussein is the Teflon dictator, and a dictator is better than a foreign occupier on any day.

That goes for Khashmani's mother, the family matriarch who recently had to pass over a half-destroyed bridge into town, now regulated by a US-run checkpoint. "I abuse the soldiers and tell them, 'What are you doing in our country?' " says Hadiya Faris al-Khashmani. "But they don't understand me. They just answer 'Salaam Aleikum,' " she says, unimpressed by their standard Arabic greeting.

Of all the places in Iraq he has taken his marines, admits Brig. Gen. John Kelly, the reception here was the iciest. As soon as guns fell silent in cities in the south, US troops were usually greeted with warmth - as liberators, he says. "Here, it's been pretty different. But [the residents of Tikrit] enjoyed a lot more stature than the average citizens of Iraq. You could make the argument that at best, most people here are going to have the same rights as other citizens."

Still, progress has been made: General Kelly has met regular with seven major tribal sheikhs, and the marines have not been shot at for several days. Soon, they'll be ready to declare their job done and turn over the US Army, whose deployment here is indefinite.

That has the people of Tikrit deeply worried. So does the policy of disarming anyone who tries to pass through the town's main checkpoint with a gun. In a culture where every household has a weapon or two or three, taking away arms makes people here fear that the US is hunkering down for good.

Thousands of Americans in the presidential palace compound here would like to prove otherwise. Kelly is requiring several thousand marines posted here to camp out on the grass amid the palaces - but not in them. Kelly says he wants his contingent to leave the palaces exactly as they found them. "My father was a postman. I couldn't bring myself to live inside the palace," he says.

Whether that will win any points - much less hearts and minds - is unclear. Next week is Hussein's birthday, a day which was always marked here by enormous fanfare - not that residents had a choice of whether to attend. Each family would make a feast and line the streets of the town with food and sweets to share with visitors. This year, Mrs. Khashmani says, perhaps people will offer their feast to the soldiers.

The troops, he says, will have a very short window to prove that they, too, are only visitors. "We will see what the American soldiers do in our country," he says. "If they're good, we will be a good friend. If not, we will fight them.... All the American soldiers will see another kind of soldier here. We know how to win. We will know how to shoot these people," he says.

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