Fear and Loathing in Tikrit

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It's been a crappy day, but an instructive one. A heavily armed gas station, homicidally angry tribesmen and a growing headache for the U.S. Tikrit has always had the reputation as a nasty place for outsiders, and I'm beginning to understand why.

This time, though, the unpleasantness is certainly not all of the locals' making. Ever since the collapse of Kirkuk a week ago, tension has been seeping slowly down the road to Tikrit, 100 or so kilometers away. Bands of self-styled peshmerga, Kurdish guerillas, have been venturing down the road, looking — they say — for holdouts from the Saddam regime. But they are looters, not peshmerga — a nasty bunch reminiscent of the mobs that followed medieval armies, killing the wounded left on the battlefield and stripping them of their valuables. The Kurdish marauders tell stories of villages full of armed members of Saddam's Baath party, or of Iraqi generals. They even ask journalists to call in U.S. air strikes. Their stories are lies, though, and in private they discuss with relish how many cars there are for the taking in the prosperous settlements.

This is a nasty, nightmarish situation for the villagers along the road, and that could quickly become a political problem for the U.S. On Monday, a few hours after the Marines moved into Tikrit, we drove down from Kirkuk. Just before the bridge that leads to the city, we were stopped at an impromptu checkpoint. Armed Arab tribesmen invited us — without the option of refusal — to meet their sheik, Said Badr Alihani. They led us along the dusty side roads of their settlement, where we noticed scouts strategically positioned along the way.

The sheik, seconded by noisy and emotional elders of the Ajil tribe, laid out their grievances, demands and an ultimatum. The Kurdish looters were threatening their women and children, he said. The U.S. should send a couple of tanks in to maintain order. If not, the sheik concluded, they would take the law into their own hands. The sheik was charming, but there was menace along the fringes of the meeting.

As we left the gathering the sheik heard mutterings from young men and responded with, what to us seemed a baffling and melodramatic temper tantrum, casting his headdress on the ground, covering his head with ashes from an outside grill while the dismayed young men rushed to reassure him. My interpreter later explained that the youths said they should kill the foreigners, Kurdish interpreter included, rather than ask for their help. Unaware of this at the time, we headed for the Tikrit bridge with a negotiator from the tribe. I stayed with the man whose name I have lost, while he talked with the U.S. officers stationed on the half-destroyed bridge, then left when it seemed my presence was no longer needed. On the way out of town that evening, I was gratified to see Humvees patrolling the area where we had been picked up, and about 10 kilometers down the road, another U.S. patrol. Things were calming down, I decided.

How wrong I was.

This morning we sped along the road back toward Tikrit. I dozed a little, no longer looking for dangers all along the road, until we suddenly saw figures running away from a large gas station, and heard long bursts of automatic fire. My driver Karim, who had not fully recovered from the previous day, saw other cars turning in front of us, did a U-turn and floored the gas. I forced him to stop and we checked the situation with oncoming vehicles.

The tribe that owned the gas station had been exasperated by outsiders — Kurds, apparently — taking fuel at gunpoint without payment. The tribe had called in reinforcements and opened fire on suspected looters. They would let us go by, we were told, but would shoot anybody trying to get into the station. A well-armed checkpoint waved us by with salutations just outside the gas station. Twenty or so men with automatic rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades waved from the ditch where they had taken up positions. We drove on past the usual sights along the Tikrit road: a missile laying on its upturned transporter for the past few days — the transporter had been picked clean of any useful parts but the missile was untouched — and the boxes of munitions lying neatly spaced in the fields to preserve them from U.S. air attacks.

Then, in Tikrit, panic broke out. Cars flew past us in the opposite direction, their drivers frantically waving for us to turn back. We went on a little further to see what was happening. Bad idea: Bullets whistled past us, much closer than we needed, and we pulled back a few hundred meters. People retreating from the area said it was the Ajil again. The tribesmen had dug in by the roadside, said they'd come under attack from looters, and were in a very ugly mood. The Ajil reinforced the point by spraying us again, from closer range. They seemed to have another position nearby.

By this time, Karim the driver was melting down. His behavior was so irrational that I feared he could get us into even deeper trouble. When a local villager negotiated a pass through the combat area for a group of press cars, Karim deliberately made us miss the convoy by slowly, slowly unscrewing the car's number plate. The Arabs would not like the plate, he muttered — incomprehensible, as the previous day he said we had Baghdad plates, perfect for this part of the country. Removing the plates was, in itself, a dangerous act given the inflamed situation. The tribesmen could easily have assumed that the car had just been stolen, and act accordingly. I also had visions of Karim charging the checkpoint instead of stopping to chat. So I fired him. He leaves for his hometown Suleymaniya this evening, with a nice bonus. This is a pain for me.

The U.S., however, faces a very serious problem around here if they do not intervene fast, establishing a clear, armed and neutral presence, they will have local race wars on their hands. The collapse of Saddam's regime has not just seen the looting of shops, hospitals and museums, but armories as well. People are even better armed than they were before. They are angry and nervous, and uncertain about the future.

The U.S. military still has time to defuse the situation. But not much.