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16 Jul 2003 09:38
Twenty-four years after a local boy called Saddam Hussein came to power, later dragging Iraq into three ruinous wars, Tikrit residents still have time for the man they say at least knew how to keep order.
The last major Iraqi town to fall to US forces in the war that marked an end to his rule, Tikrit’s walls are littered with references to Saddam, even if his main palace here is now home to the US troops hunting him down.
“Saddam is alive,” reads one defiant message scribbled on a wall on the town’s main strip. “Long live Iraq and long live its president Saddam Hussein,” someone has added, while a third reads simply: “Bush is an idiot and a dog.”
Theories and rumours surrounding the fate of Saddam abound, but if one thing is clear, it is that residents are not impressed with the new bosses.
“This situation is terrible,” says Sheikh Faisal Hameed Salman, waiting outside the former palace that US forces now call home.
His brother, he says, has been held in the base for a month without charge.
“It was better under Saddam.
The coalition, he claims, owes him thousands of dollars they confiscated when he was himself arrested in June.
“I don’t care about the money. My major problem is my brother,” he says. “They just keep telling me to come back in two days. I come back and then they tell me the same thing again.”
Another man, also standing in his full-length jallabia robe, a traditional keffiyeh crowning his head, just wants to see his son.
“Even in the old days if someone was locked up they would have told us where they were and we could visit them every 10 days. But the Americans don’t let us see them or even tell us if they’re here,” complains Hussein Ali Shalal.
“The Americans are making lots of enemies and few friends,” warns Saleh Hassan Mehdi, in his 60s, searching for news of his son, arrested while driving food to a UN centre 39 days ago.
“They’re locking up the kind of people who could be useful to them,” he says.
On one side of the entrance to the former presidential compound stands a now-rare statue of Saddam. A mangled plinth and a crumpled pile of metal is all that remains on the other side.
A US soldier explains the statue was blown up by army engineers.
“They’re gonna blow the other one up sometime,” the sergeant guarding the post explains.
Inside the palace, troops sit in ornate marbled rooms, tapping away at computers, and under what the looters left of the chandelier, a banner reads: “Steadfast and Loyal.”
It is not a throwback to the days when Saddam visited, but the motto of Task Force Ironhorse, the US division sweeping northern Iraq for loyalists of his regime blamed for a string of attacks on US forces.
The former palace now houses an operations centre kitted out with a vast array of technical gadgetry, satellite dishes, metres of cable, computers and communication systems for the US task force whose top prize remains Saddam.
Troops plod through the dusty interior apparently unaware of the symbolism related to its previous owner.
Calligraphy depicts the 1991 Gulf War, “The Mother of all Battles,” while Saddam’s initials emblazon the handcarved ceilings and walls bear intricate stucco of Koranic verses.
The palace offers a vista of the Tigris flood plain where Blackhawk attack helicopters drift past in search of their quarry.
At the northern end of the town, 175 kilometres north of Baghdad, an old plastic sign reads: “All love and loyalty to the leader Saddam Hussein.”
In a country where just showing the sole of a shoe can offend, graffiti is rich in offence.
“Bush is no better than Saddam’s shoe,” reads one scrawl. “The shoe of Saddam is like a crown on the heads of the Gulf leaders,” adds another.
One message—not far from what is now a US civil affairs centre set up in the hope of winning over the Iraqi people—is more simple. Next to a stencilled picture of the toppled leader in defiant pose, it reads simply: “I love Saddam.” - Sapa-AFP
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