Tikrit, Asharq Al-Awsat-There is something missing from this city, there is a feeling of loss in the eyes of its residents. A visitor might wonder whether the city’s residents are waiting in expectation for something to happen, or searching for something they have lost. We are talking of the city of Tikrit, and its people. This is the city and people whose name is tied to that of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He was born in the village of Al-Awja [8 miles south of Tirkit] which he later transformed into a modern luxurious town full of grand palaces and extravagance.
However Tikrit doesn’t seem to be the same city that it was before. In fact, the city today is a shadow of its former self. After being by far the most famous city in Iraq, Tikrit has become marginalized. Tikrit’s residents were formerly described as being “spoilt” yet today some of these same residents feel as if they have been “orphaned” after having lost their guardian and supporter, Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s administratively transformed Tikrit from being a district into being a governorate in itself, named after the famed Kurdish Commander Saladin Al-Ayyub [who was also born in Tikrit]. Saddam granted residents of Tikrit the right to own land in Baghdad, something that was prohibited to all other citizens except those who were officially born in the capital before 1957. Saddam also granted the people of Tikrit professional, political, and other privileges that were not granted to other Iraqi citizens.
Unfortunately Asharq Al-Awsat’s visit to Tikrit came at a bad time, and the city was alight with news of the assassination attempt on Mohammed Khorshid, an under-secretary in the Ministry of Environment and a member of the Iraqi National Accord party that is led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Allawi escaped death, but was shot several times in his right arm after he contributed to resolving a dispute over the distribution of senior posts in the district’s city hall.
Asharq Al-Awsat arrived in Tikrit two days after this event. Our contact in Tikrit was B. Salim, a former general manger in one of the Iraqi ministries until the collapse of the regime in 2003 whereupon he returned to Tikrit to live peacefully. Salim suggested that we did not [officially] announce our visit or reveal our identities as the situation in the city was extremely volatile. Asharq Al-Awsat was therefore unable to meet any members of the city hall as they were preoccupied with the dispute over the distribution of senior positions.
In a restaurant that is situated on the main road between Tikrit and Mosul, which is also the main road between Baghdad and Ninawa governorate, one can find a few local residents drinking Iraqi tea and exchanging opinions in the colloquial Tikriti dialect which inhabitants of other Iraqi regions find difficult to understand.
Salim explained to Asharq Al-Awsat “It is wrong to believe that all Tikritis were spoilt. It was the people of Al-Begat, namely the clan of Saddam Hussein, who enjoyed the greatest luxury and comfort. With respect to the rest of the Tikriti residents, some were leading normal lives, and others were suffering from poverty.” Salim also pointed out that “Saddam Hussein exercised his extreme cruelty against some locals who were discontent with the conduct of his men and bodyguards in the city.”
Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace was known for its majesty and grandeur, and is situated in Al-Awja, a village that had no claim to fame prior to Saddam’s ascendancy. This palace was bombarded shortly before the US invasion of Iraq, and was later transformed into a US military base.
Salim advised Asharq Al-Awsat against visiting the tomb of Saddam Hussein, which is open to supporters of the former President. Salim said “When news agencies or satellite TV channels come here [to Tikrit] they are always accompanied by a team of bodyguards, and have obtained the approval of the city’s governor, the city hall, and the security agencies.” Regardless Asharq Al-Awsat made its way to the tomb in Al-Awja village with the aid of our contact Salim who used his Tikriti dialect to deflect any attention.
Saddam Hussein’s body was buried only hours after his execution on 30 December 2006 in a hall that was previously used for family gatherings such as weddings. The bodies of Saddam’s two sons, Uday and Qusay, were buried in the garden outside of the hall after they were killed in a gun battle with US troops in Mosul in July 2003. The bodies of Saddam’s half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti, Iraqi Chief Judge Awad al-Bander, and vice president Taha Yasssin Ramadan, were buried alongside the bodies of Saddam’s sons.
There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein’s tomb has turned into a shrine. It occupies the middle section of the hall and is covered with Iraqi flags surrounding bouquets of flowers. The tomb is frequently visited by school children and adults on the anniversary of Saddam’s birth, as well as the anniversary of his death.
Asharq Al-Awsat recalls that previously the wake for Saddam’s maternal uncle and father-in-law, Khairullah Talfah, was held in this same hall in 1993. This wake was open to the public, and was a golden opportunity for Asharq Al-Awsat and others media organs to visit the secluded Al-Awja village, which at that time Iraqis were forbidden from entering, including the residents of Tikrit.
On the day of his uncle’s wake, Saddam sat on a couch at the forefront of the hall and nobody disturbed him. His two half-brothers, Watban and Sabawi, along with his twos sons, Uday and Qusay, welcomed condolers to the wake.
Outside the hall, Asharq Al-Awsat source Salem recognized a relative of his and asked him whether the shrine would be architecturally improved or whether the body of the “martyred President” as they call Saddam in Tikrit, would be transferred elsewhere. Salem’s relative replied “When Saddam Hussein truly dies we will build a big and imposing shrine for him.” Asharq Al-Awsat was astounded by this answer, yet Salem seemed unperturbed. Salem’s relative asserted firmly to Asharq Al-Awsat “Saddam is not dead. The US troops were unable to capture him. Even if all the armies of the world come to Iraq they will not manage to capture Abu Uday.” The relative further elaborated “The Americans captured the President’s double and hung him. Ask all the residents of Al-Awja and Tikrit. Ask those who saw Saddam’s double in court, during the execution, or saw his body after the execution. Ask them if the man who was hanged was Saddam or rather his double and they will tell you that the body buried here is that of the president’s double. And in honour of this man’s sacrifice, we buried him here.”
Salim informed Asharq Al-Awsat “This is the belief in some Tikriti households which has turned into a solid conviction, which is that Saddam was not executed, and that he will return to liberate Iraq from the Americans and the current government, and that he will reinstate the Baath party’s control over Iraq.”
He added “Tikrit and most of its residents have felt at a loss ever since the announcement of Saddam’s capture and after his execution. But there is a majority who refuse to believe this fact and resort to believing that the President is still alive. In doing so they find solace to their loss, and to the man who provided them with happiness.”
At a coffee shop in the heart of Tikrit, a university profession who studied Chemistry at an American university talks to Asharq Al-Awsat saying “People have to realize that the Saddam era is over and done with. They have to start a new life. It is also up to all Iraqis – whether they are politicians or not – to change the way they view this city and its people. They have to erase from their memories the phrase ‘Saddam’s Hometown’ whenever Tikrit’s name is mentioned.”