Tikrit is the northern point of a triangle of hostility to the U.S. presence that extends south to the cities of Falluja and Ramadi to the west of Baghdad and then into the outer fringes of the capital itself. Somewhere within this triangle, many suspect, Saddam and his sons are hiding probably split up, protected by a small group of bodyguards and a lot of money.
In Tikrit we dropped by the office of the region's new governor. We were ushered into a smoke filled antechamber where petitioners wait for hours, sometimes days, for an audience. Several tribal dignitaries in long robes were ahead of us in the line. One asked Marwan where I was from. "Russia," Marwan said. After a short silence a wiry, sunburned man who looked in his fifties asked, in very good Russian, "So what's the weather like in Moscow?" We discussed this and that the allergy season in Moscow, apartment prices, other very Russian things. I asked him where his Russian came from. "I studied there for six years," he said. Where I asked, and he paused for a second as if rippling through plausible answers in his mind. "Moscow State University", he answered. Engineering. Other people in the room added details, in Arabic, to Marwan. He was a colonel. He worked in atomic energy. He later admitted to his military rank, but said his expertise in nuclear issues extended only to a couple of Russian theoretical works on nuclear science that he had translated "for pleasure." His government work ended in 1993 when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years on trumped-up charges. He was out in 4. "Amnesty?" I asked. "No," he answered, "I sold my house and gave the proceeds [about $20,000] to one of the top security ministry men." After that he had worked wherever he could, at one time as a fixer for a Russian firm.
The tribal leaders left for their meeting with the Governor. "How are the Americans behaving here," I asked the colonel. While he spoke in Russian about the widespread belief that GIs steal the money they find during house to house searches, another person in the room a Kurd, usually the most pro-American of Iraqis, was complaining of the same in Arabic. A new stereotype, that the GIs are on the take, has emerged here. Then it was our turn.
The governor was a cheerful former general who laughed off questions about his past service. The tribal elders had come to ask his help against Kurdish attacks on their people in Kirkuk, an hour and a half to the northwest, he said, adding he might have to send fighters if the raids continue. "Our tribes are well armed", the governor remarked. "Very well armed," I countered, remembering the group of Ajil tribesmen just outside Tikrit who had briefly detained me in mid April, when the city fell during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Marwan, who had heard the story, filled in the details. "That's my tribe," the governor said, high-fiving me. "Did they treat you well?" he asked. "They released me," I answered, and he chortled happily. At the time of my problems the Ajil were defending their villages and business interests against Kurdish looters. They mobilized a lot of firepower to do it. The governor recalled the times affectionately. "Did you see the way we kicked those Kurds out?" he asked.
On Tikrit's main streets fresh graffiti praised Saddam and denounced the U.S. Marwan got out at the post office, where a local told him a slogan that proclaimed "Saddam is lord of Iraq" had been on the wall since Saddam's birthday in late April. Another, near the new police station, jointly staffed by U.S. and Iraqis probably had the most resonance for this hostile, conservative and deeply suspicious population: "The Americans are on the ground, now, but soon they will be in your beds."