BAGHDAD (AFP) – Even as defeat stared him in the face, Saddam Hussein stood on a pick-up truck outside Baghdad’s Abu Hanifa mosque and waved to the crowd of 200 people, promising them a glorious future.
“His last words to us were ‘I promise the people of Adhamiyah golden monuments once we defeat the Americans’,” remembered Abu Rima one year after the deposed dictator was hanged in the Iraqi capital.
“The image flashes in front of my eyes even now like a scene from a film. It was April 9 and a Wednesday. That date is in my blood. Saddam is in my blood,” Rima said, his voice choking with emotion.
Rima lives in the notorious Sunni bastion of Adhamiyah in north Baghdad where Saddam made his last public appearance on April 9, 2003.
Sitting on the lawn of a one-storey home, the bald 65-year-old former teacher recalled his memories of that day.
“Just hours before the American tanks rolled into Firdoos Square and pulled down his statue he was here with us in Adhamiyah and they couldn’t find him,” Rima told AFP.
US marines in central Baghdad hauled down the giant statue of Saddam, before an Iraqi crowd beat the head of the fallen figure with their shoes in an act considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture.
Describing the events of that day, Rima said Saddam appeared around the time of midday prayers.
“We were offering midday prayers inside the Abu Hanifa mosque when suddenly someone said the president was outside. We rushed out and there he was standing on the bonnet of the pick-up,” Rima said.
He said Saddam was accompanied by his son Qusay, his bodyguard Abid Hammud and his defence minister Sultan Hashim al-Tai, who now also awaits death by hanging after his conviction by the Iraqi High Tribunal for killing tens of thousands of Kurds in 1988.
“This was not the first time I’d seen him. But I rushed up and shook hands with him. I kissed him on his chest and shoulders,” Rima said, adding that Saddam was in a military uniform and that Qusay wore a purple suit.
“One brave woman who was standing close to Saddam said to him ‘you look tired.’ And he said to her ‘I won’t be tired. Inshallah, Iraq will be victorious’,” Rima said.
Another Sunni resident of Adhamiyah, Mohammed al-Obeidi, also saw Saddam outside Abu Hanifa mosque that day and agreed that the former dictator looked exhausted.
“He was tired but he still had charisma. When he was talking to us I was so charged up that I started searching for a rifle to fire in the air as a celebration that we would beat the Americans,” he told AFP.
For Rima, Saddam remains a martyr who was executed by the Americans.
“If America had attacked us alone we would have defeated them. But they came with many evil partners. But look at the courage of the martyr. He talked to us even when American helicopters were above searching for him,” Rima said.
Abu Abdullah said that Saddam even slept that night in the district.
“He was in the Abu Bishar al-Haafi mosque in Adhamiyah that night and the next day on April 10 he crossed the river in a boat and disappeared,” said Abdullah, dressed in a traditional Arab dishdasha and a brown sweater.
The 61-year-old retired government employee said Saddam left Adhamiyah early in the morning of April 10.
“He left at around six. He was dressed like an Arab. He took a boat, crossed into Kadhimiyah and disappeared,” Abdullah said, referring to the Shiite neighbourhood across the Tigris river.
Eight months later, on December 13 2003, US forces found Saddam hiding in a hole near his hometown of Tikrit in northern Iraq. He was put on trial for crimes against humanity and executed one year ago on December 30, 2006.
For these Adhamiyah residents, all former members of Saddam’s Baath Party, the situation in Iraq now is one of despair.
“Look at what is happening now. In Saddam’s time there was no Shiite-Sunni conflict,” said Rima.
“Now we have to put guns in the hands of our youngsters to protect the neighbourhood from militias and Al-Qaeda,” added Rima as a group of Sunni men stood guard outside the house where the men spoke to AFP.
Hundreds of Sunni Arabs in Adhamiyah — former insurgents — have now become neighbourhood guards with the support of the US military to fight Al-Qaeda and also to thwart attacks by Shiite militias.
“During the war Adhamiyah was the last neighbourhood to be taken by the Americans. And even now the fight is not over. We will win. One day, we will win,” Rima said before raising himself to his feet and walking out of the gate.