Iraqi resentment mounts in Tikrit
TIKRIT, Iraq – Houses shook, walls cracked, chandeliers swayed and children woke up screaming for their parents as U.S. planes dropped 500-pound bombs on the outskirts of Saddam Hussein’s hometown overnight.
The show of force late Friday and early Saturday was a warning to the 120,000 people of Tikrit not to support insurgents, suspected of shooting down a Black Hawk helicopter hours earlier, killing six soldiers.
But while it succeeded in scaring residents, the barrage only confirmed for many that the United States is their enemy.
“Now that it’s over, I feel we have won a new lease on life,” said a retired Iraqi general, wearing a traditional Arab robe and looking fatigued after a sleepless night buffeted by the sounds of American fury. He and other residents across the city described a night of damage and disruption.
“The sky was red with explosions and my grandchildren were screaming,” said Khalfar Raheem, a 70-year-old Bedouin woman, her face bearing the blue tattoos common in rural Iraq.
Local people called the Americans “terrorists,” “mercenaries” or “Jews” – a word used colloquially in Iraq and other Arab countries to refer to Israelis who, along with Iranians, were Saddam’s worst enemies.
Anti-U.S. sentiment runs deep in this city, once a dusty backwater famous as the birthplace of the medieval Muslim general Saladin and the delicious watermelons grown along the banks of the muddy Tigris River
Since the U.S. 4th Infantry Division moved in last April, it has become known for mounting some of the fiercest resistance to the American-led occupation. U.S. officials say the 4th ID has suffered more attacks than any major command within the occupation force.
Yet efforts to curb the resistance breed even more hatred for coalition forces.
American soldiers raid homes in Tikrit and outlaying villages almost daily in search of insurgents and weapons. The raids stoke the increasing resentment among Tikritis, who view them as a breach of centuries-old customs about the sanctity of someone’s home.
Cultural offense and a sense of humiliation are often cited by Iraqis when asked why they despise the Americans.
Like their fellow Sunni Arab Muslims in central and western Iraq, Tikritis have lost the elevated status they had enjoyed because Saddam, himself a Sunni, was one of them. As members of a minority, they now play second fiddle to Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, the majority they had oppressed for centuries but which has now emerged as the single most dominant community.
Tikrit, some 120 miles north of Baghdad, was quiet Saturday but the events of the day’s early hours prompted many to air grievances against the U.S. occupation.
“We fight them not because we lost our prestige,” said Miqdad, a 2nd lieutenant in the city’s police force and a former officer in Saddam’s elite Republican Guard. “We fight them as a matter of honor, dignity and in the name of Islam.”
Miqdad, wearing a gray Arab robe on his day off from the $150-a-month police job, wouldn’t give his last name, but he spoke freely about the “humiliation” of living under American occupation in post-Saddam Iraq.
“I know that the lowliest of American soldiers can just handcuff me and make me lay face down on dirt,” he said with a hint of anger in his voice. “I feel like a piece of decor. But what can I do? I need the money.”
Miqdad said the American show of force began about 10 p.m. Friday and persisted until daybreak. He said several mosques did not broadcast the call for dawn prayers, and many worshippers chose to stay home rather than venture out for religious services which most pious Muslims are rigorous about performing during the holy month of Ramadan.
“Saddam will be back, God willing,” said Serajeddin Saleh, a 23-year-old student whose father and elder brother have been detained by the U.S. military since July. “It’s not impossible.”
Like many in Tikrit, the retired general refused to have his name published for fear of reprisals by the Americans. However, he was keen to recount a night of fear and anguish that brought U.S. tanks and Humvees practically to the doorsteps of his home, a one-story dwelling less than 200 yards from where the Black Hawk crashed.
He recalled that eight or nine U.S. tanks – other residents put the number at five or six – were deployed in the area around his house starting from sunset Friday. Machine guns fitted on tanks and Humvees opened up on a half-completed house nearby, which he said belonged to a police colonel serving under the U.S.-backed, Tikrit local council.
He said the youngest of his seven children, 4-year-old Mohammed, was awakened by the thud of explosions and could not go back to sleep until the shelling stopped. The general’s 70-year-old sister who lives at the same house and suffers from a heart condition trembled with fear all night, and the entire family sought to calm her down fearing that she might die.
“We Iraqis know the ethics of war and we know that knights don’t do what the Americans are doing here,” said the retired officer. “What were they shooting at anyway? I think they just wanted to terrorize us.”