OWJA and TIKRIT – Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, Owja, near Tikrit, used to be the ultimate Middle East gated community. One could only get inside if one knew someone from the ruling elite – and he had to personally fetch you at the gates. Now Owja is semi-deserted. Most residents were Ba’ath Party members. Many fled the country. Some are back. There’s the occasional graffiti on the walls: “Saddam yes, Bush no”. Residents are afraid of talking to foreigners – they could be branded Israeli or American agents, and their houses marked with a cross by some factions of the Iraqi resistance.
Recently, an American commander gathered the local sheiks in the house of the former minister of interior, Ibrahim al-Hasan, and asked what they wanted. Residents recognize there have been some improvements: they have running water, 22 hours of electricity a day, schools are working and there will be a new hospital. “People here want to live peacefully,” says a resident. But he implies that the resistance will always be there; sometimes peaceful, sometimes with weapons. “The Americans come to schools and ask what people want, but they always ask their questions with tanks.”
A former high official in the ministry of education agreed to talk to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. “People who lived in this region were from three classes. Sixty percent were ordinary people living off agriculture or commerce. Thirty percent in between were high officials, and 10 percent were the upper class. Most of them are now in jail or outside the country.” Saddam was generous in Owja. “He gave people land, and he ordered a development bank to lend them money,” the high official said. Saddam also said everybody should build their houses following a certain design. Owja follows a neat design and is very homogeneous in architectural terms.
The high official paints an extraordinary portrait of Saddam at 15. After all, they were classmates in Tikrit. “He was brave, naughty, always smiling, dying to make jokes. He was a good student. And a very private individual. He was fond of volleyball and an avid reader of magazines. After the first year of secondary school he went to live in Baghdad.”
In an orchard, sipping tea in the early morning, the high official finally relaxes and tackles the crucial points. “We were sure we had no weapons [of mass destruction]. The Americans themselves gave us these weapons in the 1980s,” he said. “Saddam was the legal leader of his people. Now the Americans have conquered Iraq. What is the crime of the Ba’ath Party so now so many are not paid and can’t get jobs?” This man was no Saddam henchman, but an educated civilian in a position of power. He sprinkles his comments with quotes of Bernard Shaw and John Milton’s Paradise Lost . “I served the government for 43 years. Now I’m sitting in my house. Why do they not take advantage of my experience? I studied in India, I have been to the West many times.”
He would have many reasons to be revengeful, but he is not. “Americans should solve the problems of the people in Iraq. If they did that, all matters would be OK,” the official said. He knows one of the ministers in the 25-member Governing Council picked by the US as a form of an interim administration. He admits some of them may be competent, but the conversation keeps drifting to the past. “The previous regime was very modern. We were not divided according to ethnic lines. If the Americans want to build a new government they should follow the same way. And in the past, if we made any mistake in implementing a government policy, our punishment was double. Many people were hanged or shot here.”
Meanwhile, in neighboring Tikrit, the Americans are kept extremely busy by the resistance. A recent raid in the outskirts of Tikrit apprehended 93 surface-to-air missiles, 450 kilograms of C-4 explosives, 115 rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), 430 grenades, 94 rocket launchers and hundreds of remote detonators – of the same type used in recent car bombings. This is the largest weapons cache apprehended since the end of the war in April. Lieutenant-Colonel David Poirier, commander of the 720th Military Police Battalion, based in Fort Hood, Texas, said operations like these are “breaking the back of the fedayeen [para-military]“.
This raises the crucial question of whose backs are in effect being broken. It could be the backs of Saddam loyalists, Ba’ath Party former high officials, former Mukhabarat (Iraqi intelligence service) agents, or all of the above. Tikritis know very well the Mukhabarat have enormous weapons caches all over Iraq; it knows how to use them; it can distribute large amounts of cash; and it would be able to plant agents among Iraqis collaborating with the occupation as well as inside the United Nations building. Tikritis also know that many Mukhabarat have been recruited to work for the Americans. The American raids may confiscate weapons, but they still fail to catch any major suspects for the simple reason that Americans have no human intelligence on them. Is Saddam behind all this? Tikritis are mum about it. Not only in Tikrit, but also in Fallujah, Samarra, Baqouba, Ramadi and Baghdad there’s a sense among large swathes of the population that Saddam might one day be back. It may be fear, it may be trauma, it may be inability to deal with the loss of the “father of the tribe”, but the perception is always there, fueled by Saddam’s endless stream of recorded jihad calls. This popular perception is coupled with another one, even more dangerous for American objectives. As a Baghdad businessman puts it: “What the Americans want is a Saddam without Saddam, without the mass killings. A Saddam speaking English.” And who fits the bill perfectly? Ahmad Chalabi, the widely despised Pentagon protege and rotating chairman of the Governing Council during the month of September.
Tikritis tell of endless episodes of people firing in the air to commemorate a marriage and scared American patrols shooting back at people in the wedding. They speak of ambushes followed by the inevitable encirclement of an area, where even street kids and minibus passengers to Baghdad are thoroughly searched. They tell of how people expected a goodwill gesture from the Americans, “like we did ourselves”. Tikrit was conquered without any battles. Instead, US proconsul L Paul Bremer dissolved the army saying, “This humiliation will not stand.” It did not, as Tikritis reveal that the local resistance took its cue from Fallujah in early June – through images widely broadcast by al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya television stations.
In Baqouba, Salah, a man who filmed marriage ceremonies and sold clerics’s cassettes was able to became a correspondent for al-Jazeera. He said “People are proud of their city or their village when a bomb explodes. They call me. If there are no Americans killed, even the Iraqi policemen are disappointed.” Tikritis wholeheartedly agree. In Tikrit, as well as in other parts of the Sunni triangle, the stark reality of an Iraq in a total void – of employment, of government – is very vivid. 10 million people are unemployed in Iraq at the moment – 60 percent of the working-age population. Every day, the al-Kindi hospital in Baghdad receives between 10 and 20 Iraqis shot by Americans. Everywhere in the Sunni triangle people stress that the Americans have failed to fill the void and guide a lawless society, and their bunker mentality has just accelerated the further collapse of local authority. The void has been occupied by Islam – the only possible common identity capable of facing America. The mosques at Friday prayers are overflowing.
Bremer and the euphemistically-denominated Coalition Provisional Authority, housed in Saddam’s former main Republican Palace near the Tigris in Baghdad, simply cannot hear the voices in the streets because they wouldn’t dare leaving their bunkers. So the voice of the streets came to the bunker – via three rockets. The Republican Palace, the Conference Palace and the hotel al-Rashid are the symbols of the American occupation. The triad forms what journalists and diplomats call “the bubble”.
Bremer and many military commanders live in the al-Rashid. The hotel is even more inaccessible than during the Saddam era – surrounded by roadblocks and barbed wire. Inside the Republican Palace, a thousand American bureaucrats are busy trying to remodel a crucial Middle Eastern country – the cradle of civilization – about which they know practically nothing and make no effort to understand. So no wonder the new folk hero in Tikrit, Baghdad and all over the Sunni triangle is the solitary individual who fired three rockets against the al-Rashid last Saturday morning.
Tikrit has a governor inevitably appointed by the Americans. His court of miracles is no different from Fallujah’s, with the cast of expectant characters including former army officers, former Mukhabarat agents proposing their services to the occupation forces, prisoners’ widows or victims of violent GI search patrols. They all refer to Saddam as “the president” – as most Iraqis still do. An aura of nostalgia when they talk about the recent past – like the former high official in Owja – is inescapable. As well as the refrain: “With the Americans, everything is destroyed. How do they work? They don’t want anybody among us.” It’s unlikely the thousand bureaucrats at the Republican Palace in Baghdad are able to answer these questions.
Some people are actually profiting from the situation. At the very modern University of Tikrit – built by Saddam in the 1990s and with many buildings still unfinished – a conversation with the head of the English department is fascinating especially by what he doesn’t say. Former teachers who were members of the Ba’ath Party have been “suspended” – and he happens now to head the department. He refuses to say anything about the dreams and hopes of his students in such a critical city and at such critical times – something weird for an academic who must be listening to endless stories every day. Actually, he spends most of his days commuting because he is a Kurd from Kirkuk, and he was imported by the Americans. So this may be the secret of de-Ba’athization cooked up by the bunkered American bureaucrats in Baghdad: a competent man like the former high official in Owja is ostracized just because he was a party member (otherwise his career would be dead), while an imported, mediocre bureaucrat is rewarded with an important university posting. No wonder the voice of the streets will keep on rocketing.