Home of Saddam and Saladin defiant
By Janine di Giovanni in Tikrit
Times of London, UK, 11 Feb:
NEARING Tikrit, 90 minutes north of Baghdad on the Tigris River, the road changes drastically.
The dark pockmarked highway suddenly becomes smooth, new and brightly lit. It is as though you are entering another, much richer country.
There is another difference. On the highway’s dusty margins are newly dug trenches and military fortifications.
This protection is necessary not just because war is looming, but also because Tikrit is a legendary place, steeped in myth and history, ancient and modern. It is the hometown of President Saddam Hussein and most of his most-trusted advisers, as well as the great warrior and champion of Islam, Saladin.
It is also strategically important; the gateway to the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk and Iraq’s great oilfields.
Tikrit has been fought over many times. In the autumn of 1917 during the First World War, Sir Frederick Stanley Maude captured the city in the final engagement of the Mesopotamian front. Tikritis do not like to lose, or to be subjects of foreign powers. If a war does come, Tikrit will be one of the Americans’ main targets and the people insist that they will resist with all the force that they can muster.
“The soldiers are ready to fight the war,” thunders Ahmed Abdul Faisal, the Governor of Tikrit, at a military parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Baath Party revolution in 1963.
The parade is not just a chance to flaunt hardware and odd goosesteps. It is designed to boost morale. The show of force is serious and the spectators’ cheers are full of passion.
“The soldiers have finished their training and are ready to fight the Americans,” Mr Faisal says. “Victory will be Iraq’s.”
Saddam was born just outside Tikrit, in the village of al-Auja in April 1937, in his uncle Khayrallah Taifa’s mud hut. His mother named her son Saddam, which means “one who confronts”. He draws his inner circle from Tikrit because of the fierce loyalty of the clan or tribe system.
“Tikritis have a special distinction coming from this place,” says Turki Abdul Razak, who works in a petrol station under an enormous Day-Glo portrait of Saddam. “It’s not just the town. Everyone from the province feels honoured.”
Like other dry, dusty Iraqi towns, Tikrit features the usual row of shops selling aluminium pots and pans, children’s clothes and women’s headscarves. There are tea-shops and restaurants selling roast chicken.
But Tikrit is also a living museum to the President. Most places in Iraq are plastered with photographs and portraits of Saddam, but Tikrit has even more. Here also is the presidential site, four square kilometres (2˝ square miles) of farms and rural retreats for party VIPs.
“Tikritis feel different from other Iraqis, more blessed because this is the place our leader comes from,” says Ali Ahmed Hamza, a worker who sips tea in a typical workman’s café near Celebration Square. “If the Americans and Brits try to come here, people will fight harder. We will die for it. To submit our territory to the enemy would be to lose our honour.”
Like the rest of the men in the café, Mr Hamza has come to look for work. He makes a few dollars a month if he is lucky, but he does not complain about his fate: three of his children are marching in the Tikrit parade and he is proud. He says that when he moved to Tikrit 25 years ago he was fortunate. Now few outsiders can come here to live. It is virtually a closed society.
“I was lucky,” he says, watching a fuzzy television showing a video of the Baathist coup, followed by a plump singer extolling the virtues of Saddam. “The schools are better, roads are better, life is better here than the rest of Iraq.”
The legend of Saladin is also part of the Tikrit myth, and he is often compared to Saddam. Born in 1138 in Tikrit, Saladin was a Kurdish warrior who became a legend in the East for ousting the Crusaders from Jerusalem. It was Saladin who subsequently formed a unified Islamic state centred in Egypt.
His record was impressive. In 1174, Saladin began uniting territories and within 12 years had Damascus, Aleppo and Mosul. He united Egypt and Iraq and convinced the Muslim world to rise in jihad — holy war — against Christians.
Saladin liberated Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187. He was defeated by Richard the Lionheart in the third Crusades in 1189, but eventually settled a treaty with the Crusaders that guaranteed Christian pilgrims access to Holy Places. Saladin died in 1193 and was buried in Damascus, but his spirit — and his legend — remain vivid in Iraqis’ minds, particularly at a time when they feel vulnerable to war.
“This is our legacy,” Hamza says. “We are fighters.”