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From: Martin Smith · Re: Tikrit · Date: Nov. 30, 2003

 
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Introduction: A Long Road

The road leading in and out of Tikrit is a two-lane superhighway. It's like building an interstate in and out of Hope, Arkansas.

I am spending the night in the Water Palace, another of Saddam's many pleasure domes, this one more spectacular than most because it is built out over a small artificial lake. Like most of these buildings, though, its grandiose scale and lack of furnishings render it cold, empty, and oddly uninspired, in spite of all the effort to impress. The wall carvings are somehow clunky. It's craft without soul. There is a heaviness to it all.

Finally it is all darkly comical. I step inside where two very large, gaudy chandeliers hang high over a large expanse of white, brown, and black marble floor. Facing me are innumerable flights of stairs rising in a symmetrical crisscrossing fashion. I am reminded of something out of one of those M.C. Escher prints where perspective and dimension are illogical and stupid.

We are directed to a side door off the central atrium. I am relieved that I won't have to carry my bags up those stairs. We descend a few steps into a room full of cots. A few soldiers are resting, and a clothesline is hung with towels, sweats, and socks. This is homier, and we will sleep here tonight as guests of the 4th Infantry Division.

A wall of sliding doors looks out over the lake. The view is one of the most pleasing I've seen since we began our travels. Other palatial buildings are silhouetted against the sky and simultaneously reflected in the lake.

Inside we are fussing over towels, cots, and blankets. Where will I sleep? Marcela is complaining about being cold. It is drafty, but warmer than many hotels we've visited. Scott is outside with a squad of soldiers who are planning to shell nearby Fedayeen positions with mortar fire.

"We hit them every night or so," Major General Raymond Odierno, the 4th Infantry's commander, explained earlier. "Don't be bothered if you hear the explosions tonight. It keeps the incoming fire down. The building you're sleeping in has only been hit once by enemy fire since we've been here." He knocks on a wooden desk, the seized property of the base's former Baathist occupants.

Humor like this is part of life here. But our Water Palace seems comfortable enough. It's exotic, too. Rob, a British soldier and roommate, tells me that outside, a few feet below where I will be sleeping, the lake is stocked with crocodiles. "About six feet long," he says, "and they will jump, so be careful when you're on the balcony."

Major Tate hands us some spare blankets. "There's a box of beef jerky and peanuts outside if you're interested," he says. A movie called Fear.com is playing upstairs.

Before he retires for the evening I hear Major Tate say, "We haven't been able to catch him." He's not talking about Saddam. He says that somewhere outside a chimpanzee is running loose. Just as William Randolph Hearst stocked his Xanadu castle, and Pablo Escobar his Colombian ranch, Saddam Hussein reportedly stocked this hometown complex of palaces with zoo animals. If that's true, it's more dark comedy: chimpanzees suffocating in 130-degree dry, dusty, Tikriti desert heat.

The truth is that today all the chimps are dead, and maybe those crocodiles too. But, as a guest tonight, I am ready to believe just about anything. When I am told that Saddam himself lives in an underground shelter nearby, and that all the workers and contractors with knowledge of its whereabouts were killed, I consider the possibility of achieving such secrecy.

In truth, Saddam may not be far away. Home to Saddam, Tikrit is also where many of the top Baath Party officials still live, and many of them remain active planners and paymasters of the anti-coalition "resistance." To keep them in check, General Odierno has sealed a large section of Tikrit with spools of barbed wire. The well-to-do al-Awja neighborhood now looks like a large prison camp. The U.S. Army monitors everyone who comes and goes. A few residents are not ever allowed out. The general says it's been quiet lately.

Still, sympathy for Saddam prevails around Tikrit. Before coming on base we stopped in town for lunch. As I sat eating a roasted chicken, Scott filmed the large photo portrait of Saddam in sunglasses hanging on the wall just behind me. The men in the restaurant (and there were virtually no women) looked like characters from a western. Not a John Ford flick, but Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven -- except they wear red and black kaffiyehs and carry AKs instead of Colts.

Saddam retains loyalty no doubt because he lavished many gifts on this small town. And not just jobs. The road leading in and out of Tikrit is a two-lane superhighway. It's like building an interstate in and out of Hope, Arkansas. At the road's entrance is a pair of arches with an inscription in large gold letters: "Tikrit is great because Saddam is from Tikrit."

It's "lights out," and I can't see the keyboard to type so easily now. I will finish quickly. Scott has just returned and tells me soldiers never fired any shells tonight. He's not sure why. But he has heard some news. He tells me that today two Japanese diplomats were shot dead while stopped at a fruit stand along the road from Baghdad to here. Also today, he says, in downtown Tikrit, two South Korean contractors were killed. It's uncomfortable, and we don't talk about it. I much prefer the story about the jumping crocodiles.

 

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posted february 12, 2004

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