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Tikrit waits for its fallen son

Tikrit, April 20 (Reuters): US soldiers dive into his indoor swimming pool for fun. His photographs are scattered in the ashes of his bombed palace. A broken statue of him on a horse reminds people of his downfall.

But many residents of Saddam Hussein’s home town insist he lives and cling to the hope he will come home.

“Saddam is still alive. Nobody knows where he is right now but he will return here. We are sure,” said Saleh Attiya.

While Iraqis in many other parts of the country are eager for political change, Tikrit residents preferred the Saddam era.

One of the big unanswered questions of the US-led invasion is whether he survived a military attack that included at least two air raids aimed at sites where he was thought to be.

Speculation that Saddam might still be alive has been fuelled by television footage said to show him surrounded by adoring crowds in northern Baghdad on April 9, the day US forces seized the capital.

Posters of their former president are plastered on every telephone pole in Tikrit, a dusty town of sand-coloured houses 175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad. His name is scribbled on many buildings.

The opposition leaders the US is trying to groom as Iraq's future rulers get short shrift here.

“If those exiled opposition people come back to Tikrit, they will be killed. They will leave dead. They are crooks. These people who spend their lives abroad making money should not come back,” said Mohammad Jassem.

Many Iraqis complain that Saddam brutalised them, but Tikritis say that is the only way to keep Iraq’s volatile mix of Kurds, Sunnis and Shias from turning on each other.

“We have many sects that will fight each other. Only Saddam can hold the country together. He did it for years,” said Ahmed Kawash.

US forces are screening applicants for the Tikrit police force and are planning to choose a mayor. “They will learn to be democratic in the next few months,” said an American soldier.

The US troops at one of Saddam's palaces were more concerned with cooling off than with Tikrit politics. They stepped from armoured personnel carriers and enjoyed a swim in an indoor pool that used to belong to Saddam.

Others surveyed the bombed-out palace, debating whether it was a one-tonne bomb or a laser-guided missile that pulverised the complex at Awja, Saddam’s birthplace on the southern edge of Tikrit.

Just as the Georgian birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin honours its favourite son, Iraqis living near Awja recall Saddam’s achievements with pride.

They celebrate his three decades in power, during which time he brought Tikrit the best public services in the country.

US troops were expecting his followers to make a desperate stand in Tikrit, the last major population centre to fall to the invaders, but in the event resistance was light.

The battle for political control of the town is likely to be much tougher.

“If these Americans stay here they will pay a price. We will all turn into suicide bombers,” said one resident, who gave his name as Hisham.

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