- TIKRIT, Iraq -- Tikrit is
the center of Iraq's "Sunni Triangle," recently referred to by
the head of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid. "The terrorist
threat that is emerging and is certainly becoming a problem for us is clearly
being fueled by extremists within a fairly distinct geographic area - Tikrit,
Ar Ramadi, Baghdad."
- Whenever I pass through Tikrit I call at the Mashallah
Restaurant, a truck stop on the main highway north from Baghdad to Kurdistan
- an Iraqi version of an American diner, always full and boisterous, as
the traders pass through.
- On my first visit I went for lunch with some American
soldiers. There were none of the warm welcomes that are typical of Iraqi
hospitality. One of the soldiers commented, "I feel like a black guy
walking into a country and western bar in the South."
- The food was hastily brought and removed while the soldiers
olive-skinned companion in civilian clothes was subjected to hateful stares
because of the presumption that he was an Iraqi traitor working with the
- I recently returned alone to see what the customers and
staff thought of the American occupation. All the Sunni customers refused
to talk except, but there was a table of Shias, the religious sect that
suffered most under Saddam. "Truthfully, we thank America for the
good service she did for us," said one of the young Shias. "America
liberated the devout from Saddam. His companion added, "Saddam released
thieves but executed the devout."
- The restaurant staff had different opinions. An eager
waiter lifted the sleeve of his manager's shirt to reveal a watch with
Saddam's smiling visage on its face. The waiter kissed the watch. "Saddam
was Iraqi," said the manager, "there was security and stability
under Saddam." Another waiter complained, "America is the dirtiest
of the dirty. They were worse than Saddam."
- "Tikrit is like the Mason Dixon line," said
a sergeant in the American special forces operating in the town from where
Saddam and most of his regime's elite hailed. "The further west you
go the more Arab it is, the further east you go the more Kurdish it is."
- Wild West
- Set on an arid sandy flat plain in northern Iraq, with
squat mud houses and a hostile population, Tikrit reminds one more of the
Wild West, than pre civil war America. But the disgruntled citizens of
Tikrit may be the ones who provoke a civil war in Iraq.
- Right now it is only a small guerrilla war directed at
American troops occupying the town that was the bastion of support for
Saddam's regime. Tikrit has a Saddam Street, Saddam hospital, Saddam Mosque,
one student at the university joked that "we had Saddam air and Saddam
- If per capita waves and smiles at American troops were
a standard by which to judge a town's reaction to the war, than you would
need no further information about Tikrit. In other parts of the country,
children and adults, even old men, wave and smile at soldiers from their
perches on street corners and from their cars. In Tikrit they just glare
at their occupiers and watch them drive away, their cold still silence
- Anti-American graffiti is common on the walls of every
Iraqi city, but in Tikrit and its neighboring villages can one find pro-Saddam
graffiti, calling for jihad against the Americans. Every morning formerly
empty walls are painted with `Long live Saddam!' and graffiti praising
the former leader and calling for his return.
- Unlike other towns and cities, Tikrit did not suffer
from an orgy of looting against symbols of authority and former government
buildings, perhaps because the population bore no hostility to the former
government. Also unlike other cities Tikrit does not suffer from the same
shortages in water and power that plague Iraqis everywhere.
- Special forces helicopters zoom through the skies and
their convoys roll down streets with greater visibility than elsewhere,
as former regime members and current guerrilla warriors are hunted down.
They are based in a lavish compound of dozens of palaces that belonged
to Saddam in a walled off area of several hundred square acres complete
with artificial lakes, water falls, islands, as well as ostentatious villas
and swimming pools. Even the chandeliers and columns bear Saddam's initials.
- The occupiers have a minimum of personal interaction
with the locals, merely rumbling from one base to another in large convoys,
perhaps bursting into homes to arrest suspects. In Tikrit people are afraid
to talk to the soldiers in public and have to steal a few words hidden
in alleys, away from the main street and the general view. A local factory
that sells ice to the Americans received so many threats that American
troops now protect it. Three children have been accidentally run over by
American soldiers in Tikrit, tragedies and public relations nightmares
rolled into one.
- Ghost town
- An angry old man in a black robe and traditional head
scarf swore he was heading to his tribe to collect weapons and allies to
come attack the Americans because they shot one of his relatives. Cars
slow down and the passengers extend their necks to eye strangers. "Tikrit
is a small town," said one taxi driver, "and we recognize anybody
- By nine P.M. the normally slow streets are entirely empty
and Tikrit is a ghost town in anticipation of a 10 P.M. American curfew.
A solitary Chaihane, or tea house was open as the owner prepared to close
up shop. He was reluctant to provide specific responses to questions. "A
coffee house is like a hospital or a university," he explained, "people
come in and come out." Assim Abdullah, a university student originally
from another town to the north said, "95 percent of Tikritis supported
Saddam but they changed 180 degrees now that he is gone. They all benefited
from him. Only five percent of Tikritis are innocent. The others supported
Saddam, they helped him and they took advantage of their power to increase
their wealth, so you can recognize the innocent people. If they are rich
they are not innocent."
- Saddam Mosque in the center of town may be the cleanest,
best lit and most comfortably air-conditioned mosque in the country. It
is new and no expense was spared by the leader in bestowing gifts on his
home town. Several hundred men sit between the wide intricate columns of
the mosque to hear the Friday sermon.
- "I told you many times not to attack the Americans
now," said Sheikh Kheiri of the mosque. Instead, he exhorted his flock:
"Wait and prepare yourselves. Your enemy is very strong and whatever
you do you cannot defeat him. When you organize yourself secretly, and
plan secretly and collect weapons secretly, then you will succeed in whatever
you do. Don't let your enemy know what you are doing. Your government is
gone, your supporters are gone, everything is gone right now." He
urged them to organize and recruit people, warning against small random
attacks because "you are between the lion's teeth and if you do anything
he will kill you and your family. Don't do anything until we tell you."
- Tikrit was nothing before Saddam , Iraqis say. The regional
capital had been Samara, a larger town to the south with Shia shrines.
Saddam, born in the nearby village of Awja, lavished his largesse upon
Tikrit. In Samara, Mullah Hatim Samarai, leader of the Great Mosque told
his supporters, "I hope God will help us see them leave our country."
- Go home
- Mullah Hatim spoke to a congregation of 1,000 people
in his mosque, where he wields tremendous influence as one of the leading
clerics of northern Iraq. But he too urged his listeners not to take matters
into their own hands.
- At the Alburahman Mosque of Samara, Sheikh Ahmad al Abasi
has taken a comparatively moderate approach, advising his listeners to
work with the Americans, and help them, but "if after a year they
do nothing for the people here, we will tell them to go home." Presumably
he meant violently.
- Saddam's arrest will not bring the resistance to the
occupation to an end. The fact that he was found as a virtual hermit living
in a cave disconnected from the world seems to prove he was not controlling
the attacks perpetrated by the Iraqi resistance.
- Conversations with common Iraqis throughout the country
reveal a growing hostility to the American occupation. Ayman Aftam, a portly
young customs office manager in the Iraqi al Huseiba border with Syrian
owes his position and salary to the American soldiers of the 3rd Armored
Cavalry Regiment. They took control of the western region of Iraq and reestablished
a customs service, in addition to police.
- The 26-year-old Aftam, who studied law at Baghdad University
saw hundreds of foreign mujahideen (holy warriors) entering Iraq through
the al-Qaim crossing before the war. "We welcomed them because they
were here to defend our country," he says. As for the Americans -
"We don't welcome them. They are occupying forces. We haven't seen
anything good from them, only an occupation.
- He conceals his resentment from the American soldiers
he cooperates with, but in Arabic he demands, "why do they come with
their Bradleys in front of our houses, and put their boots on our people's
heads? Why don't they wave back when our children wave to them? They just
keep their guns pointed at us."
- Soldiers often say about the Iraqis they believed they
were liberating, "they hate us." Sheikh Mudhafar Abdel Wahab
Alani could be heard sermonizing to his congregation of 1,200 from the
city's biggest mosque. The forty year old religious leader berated his
audience for what he said was their sinful behavior since the foreigners
occupied their country.
- Lost dignity
- Loudspeakers atop the mosque made his furious opprobrium
audible throughout the city. As he completed his khutba (sermon) and the
noon prayer ended, he emerged, wearing a white robe and white turban, a
thick black beard on his reddish brown face and an aquiline nose defining
his angular distinguished features.
- He walked swiftly past the departing worshipers, smiling,
greeting passersby warmly, and wishing everyone peace and God's blessings.
He was happy to share his views with a stranger. "We reject this occupation,
as I said in many of my sermons," he began. "No country would
accept an occupation. We have lost our dignity."
- Of the Americans he said "until now we have not
seen anything good except killing, searches and curfews. There is a reaction
for every action. If you are choking me I will also choke you. We have
a resistance just like the Palestinians, Chechens and Afghans." When
asked if the Americans should leave soon, he snapped, "they should
leave today." The Americans had done nothing to improve life, he said
so "how could it get any worse? It has never been so bad."
- Sheikh Mudhafar said one word explained the attacks against
American soldiers - intikam, revenge. "Revenge is a common tradition
in Iraq. It was the same between Iraqis before the Americans arrived. The
attacks are the reaction to the Americans. Revenge for their actions."
- He rejected American claims that there was no popular
support for the Iraqi resistance. "I don't think there is al-Qaida
in Iraq and Saddam's supporters are too cowardly to attack the Americans."
He was not opposed to the anti American attacks. "I did not tell my
people not to attack the Americans."
- In the nearby town of Ubeidi, 20 kilometers from Huseiba,
Sheikh Mudhafar's close friend Sheikh Kamal Shafiq Ali, a leader of the
Mustafa mosque and its congregation of 1000 had completed his sermon as
well. The jovial Sheikh Kamal also donned a white robe and a white cap,
and his clipped white beard made him look older than his 45 years.
- Sheikh Kamal certainly preferred American soldiers to
fellow Muslim or Arab soldiers, saying that "Americans are more kind
than Arab or Muslim soldiers would be." Of course even Sheikh Kamal
is not extending his country's hospitality indefinitely. "A government
must be established, security must be provided, there have to be elections
and a constitution and after they finish all that they have to get out,
as they promised," he said. However, he would be hard pressed to find
any American who wants to stay.
- Taxi drivers throughout Baghdad endlessly complained
that there was less security, stability, employment and electricity under
the American occupation than there had been under Saddam. "Saddam
was better than the Americans," is what I heard over and over again.
Saddam was a Muslim, an Iraqi. Saddam provided security.
- It is the occupation Iraqis are fighting against. There
is no doubt they will continue until they have liberated themselves from
the Americans who liberated them from Saddam.
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