Inside Saddam's Hometown

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Iraqi men wave AK-47 rifles during a military parade in Tikrit

Another day, another parade. With war approaching, the Iraqi government and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party are staging massive demonstrations of public confidence and preparedness around the country. And to make sure the world (read: Washington) gets the message, the authorities are dropping their usual restrictions and allowing foreign journalists to take a peek.

Generally, if you’ve seen one parade, you’ve seen them all. But today’s show is special: it’s being staged in the lair of the lion — Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. Only a two-hour drive north of Baghdad, the city has been out of bounds for journalists for months, so this is a rare treat. Here, finally, is a chance to explore the social and cultural setting that produced not only Saddam, but also one of the Arab world’s greatest heroes, Salahuddin — or, as the Crusaders knew him, Saladin. Here’s a chance to chat with members of Saddam’s own tribe, and to glean from them some clues as to how his mind works.

That's what we thought, anyway. Alas, reality proved us wrong. Rather than give us the freedom to explore the city, the authorities have decreed that we are to drive straight to Tikrit’s parade stadium (every Iraqi city worth its salt has one), then straight back to Baghdad. No stops in the city, not even for a beverage at a local teahouse, much less a bit of conversation with the locals. My government-appointed minder is apologetic, but firm.

So the only interaction I can have with Tikritis is inside the stadium, where the few hundred people who are not marching have gathered to cheer. Since these can only be hurried conversations in the minutes before the marching starts, I decide to focus on one broad question: What is it about Tikrit that produces strongmen like Saladin and Saddam?

"There’s nothing special about Tikrit, it’s like any Iraqi town," says Fadil Abbas Hamid, 22, an economics student at the local university. "Nothing special, we just happen to be the hometown of the President," echoes Aquif Al-Talij, 30, a low-level government official.

"Nothing special, nothing at all," says Aliah Gazal Dawood, 39, a housewife and Ba’ath Party activist, armed with fistfuls of candy that she will throw (in lieu of flowers) at the marchers. Is this collective modesty, or was something lost in the translation?

Too late to rephrase the question; the parade has begun. Tens of thousands of volunteers — and a few companies of the regular Army — march by to the energetic prompting of a 12-piece brass band. Making the greatest early impression: a cohort of masked women in black, armed with AK-47s. Not far behind, but at the opposite end of the impressiveness scale, are a rabble of local Ba’ath workers, many of them sporting pot bellies and making little effort to stay in step. On the public address system, a man with a deep voice exhorts the soldiers of God to show the world that they are more than a match for the dastardly Americans. Wearing their sternest expressions, the marchers chant slogans of praise for Saddam and swear to die for him and for their country.

Outside the gates of the stadium, as groups of marchers await their turn in front of the cameras, there’s a lot of joshing and laughing. Lots of singing, too — not military dirges or paeans to the President, but traditional songs of love and camaraderie. A middle-aged man in the traditional Arab dishdash and red keffiyeh breaks into a tribal dance; a couple of young men, egged on by their mates, join in the jig. Soon there’s a circle of men clapping and cheering as the dangers strut their stuff. The commotion attracts the attention (as it was intended to, probably) of a group of women volunteers. They giggle and stare.

At the other end of the square, at the exit gates, the marchers break out of formation and, plainly relieved, drop the expressions of grim determination. Out-of-towners sprint towards the buses that will take them home. Tikritis hang back, catch up with friends for a chat.

"Did you see that TV camera — it came right up to my face," says one excited teenager. "We’ll see you on the news tonight," says his friend, slapping him on the back.

When the war comes, will these phalanxes of volunteers live up to the promises they chanted today and fearlessly give up their lives for their country and President? Will this civilian "army" of out-of-shape, middle-aged Party workers and their poorly drilled daughters and sons offer even token resistance against an invading force of highly trained, armed-to-the-teeth G.I.s? To ask such questions would be to rain on this parade. It would also be beside the point, which is this: even in the face of doom, potentially only days away from what might be the demise of their city’s favorite son, Tikritis can laugh, sing and put on a show. Nothing special? You tell me.