'And Still, The Iraqis Hate Us'
By Nir Rosen

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 Americans.
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 water also."
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 saying plenty.
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 new."
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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