Tikrit, April 27 (Reuters): On the eve of Saddam Hussein’s 66th birthday, US soldiers armed with spray cans blackened out a freshly painted sign declaring: “Happy Birthday, my leader Saddam Hussein.”
Two boys on bicycles raced away from the troops in the village of Awja, where Saddam was raised, saying they were wasting their time.
“It will be written up again,” said 12-year-old Mutaz Sabah.
Saddam’s iron rule is over, his palaces have been looted and he may even be dead, but some people are determined to celebrate his birthday tomorrow in and around his home town of Tikrit, which lies 175 km north of Baghdad.
“If we don’t celebrate in the streets, we will celebrate in our homes,” said 40-year-old Saadi Mohammed, one of a group Iraqis in a Tikrit street who believe Saddam is alive.
Rumours are rife that Saddam will even stage a “surprise” for Iraqis on his birthday.
No one can say quite what that might be. But one man said many Iraqis feared Saddam might return to haunt them, possibly on his birthday.
“We are scared about that (his return),” said Hassan Hussein, who runs a computer shop.
Others dismissed such concerns out of hand.
Saddam had not attended his birthday celebrations in Tikrit for years, apparently for fear of being assassinated.
“Some people say he might come back, but it is impossible under these conditions,” said Adnan Jaber Zaidan, an engineer.
Any celebrations will certainly not match the extravaganzas seen in previous years when lavish festivities across the country had lasted several days and featured dancing and singing and marquees that lined the route from Baghdad to Tikrit.
At those celebrations tribal chieftains and members of Saddam’s ruling Baath party handed out sweets and portraits of the president and the festivities culminated in a parade in Tikrit.
The parade ground is now home to a unit of the US Army 4th Infantry Division and Saddam’s house in Awja is a burnt out shell.
The shower cabinet in his bathroom has melted in the heat, a huge chandelier lies smashed on the floor and sacks of tomatoes and other vegetables rot in huge refrigerators.
Saddam's face once adorned every lamppost in Tikrit. Now only the occasional portrait remains.
But Saddam still has some sympathisers in a region that long benefited from the largesse of its most famous son and which provided many top officials during his rule.
The appearance of graffiti supporting Saddam is a message to US forces that his shadow will stretch over Iraq as long as he is not found dead or arrested by US troops.
“He is in our hearts. No American or anyone else will arrest him. God will protect him. He will be back,” said 32-year-old Mohammed Hassan.
US forces took control of Tikrit on April 14, facing less resistance than expected. Even so, there was recently shooting at a checkpoint in Tikrit and a US soldier was killed in a road accident heading to the scene on Saturday.
One soldier said people in Tikrit had been more suspicious of them than Iraqis elsewhere. Asked what he meant by this, he said: “Shooting about every night — mortars, AK-47s...”
Although the Iraqi authorities presented Saddam’s birthday celebrations during his lifetime as spontaneous, local residents made clear they were not.
Hassan, who lives north of Tikrit but whose computer shop is in the city, said he had been forced to attend past celebrations.
Asked what he would have said about Saddam on his birthday a year ago, before the US-led war that ousted him, Hassan said: “I would have said that we love him, that I would do anything for him, that I would die for him. But now it is different.”
Many people in Tikrit are not thinking about Saddam’s birthday at all. They are concentrating simply on coming to terms with the new reality of post-war Iraq.
One 18-year-old man discussed how good life was under Saddam as he hawked cola and cigarettes to the US troops guarding a former presidential palace.