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Analysis: Saddam Hussein's Hometown Celebrates Revolution Day

Weekend Edition Saturday: February 8, 2003

On Revolution Day, Iraqis Await New Conflict



SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

SOUNDBITE OF REVOLUTION DAY CELEBRATIONS

SIMON: Those are the sounds of Revolution Day in Iraq. Today marks a time of national celebration there, commemorating the 1963 rise to power of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. This as chief United Nations weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei have arrived in Baghdad on their latest and perhaps final round of talks to try to win greater access to investigate Iraq's weapons programs.

NPR's Anne Garrels is in Tikrit, which is Saddam Hussein's hometown and the power base for his Ba'ath Party.

Anne, happy Revolution Day.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Happy Revolution Day to you.

SIMON: And please tell us what this place is like, Tikrit.

GARRELS: Well, it's--foreigners aren't usually allowed here, and it's certainly clear that this is no ordinary Iraqi town. The tarmac suddenly becomes smooth as you approach it. On the outskirts there's a huge gate with a massive mural with Saddam Hussein on horseback galloping towards Jerusalem, missiles and warplanes above him. Now images of Saddam are everywhere in Iraq, but the number here in Tikrit really does boggle the mind.

While Baghdad may be the capital of Iraq, Tikrit is definitely Saddam country. It's, as you mentioned, the Ba'ath Party's stronghold and Saddam has surrounded himself with clansmen from Tikrit. The name al-Tikriti automatically suggests to an Iraqi power and privilege. Saddam's got a massive palace here, a compound surrounded by cement walls and guard towers, so I understand. We weren't allowed anywhere near it. His associates have grand houses here. I mean, generally speaking--you know, Baghdad may be the capital, but this is pretty nice. But people here do know that Tikrit's going to be among the first targets if there is a war.

SIMON: Yeah.

GARRELS: It was already bombed in '91 and '98.

SIMON: Well, and, of course, that raises the question as to whether there was a certain emotional temper in the proceedings there today, with so many people perhaps understanding that where they're standing might soon become some kind of target for US military action.

GARRELS: You know what's weird? There really wasn't that much tension in the air, and I was surprised by it. There was a veneer of defiance, thousands of men and women, soldiers and the volunteer Jerusalem army marching and chanting `We'll give our blood and soul for Saddam.' But, you know, there was something worn out about it all, something that reminded me of the waning years of the Soviet Union, when everybody came out for Revolution Day, but only because they had to. Saddam, incidentally, wasn't there, but that wasn't surprising because he hasn't been seen in public for two years.

And the volunteer army was a pretty ragtag group. I mean, there were men in green fatigues carrying old worn guns. They didn't have boots on, just normal shoes. The women wore long skirts and sometimes high heels and sneakers. They didn't carry weapons, but they wore Saddam buttons. And while some insisted, `Oh, no, we have regular training and we're all crack shots,' others confessed that, really, they'd just been recruited for the parade at school, along with their classmates.

SIMON: Yeah.

GARRELS: But to go back, people in Tikrit have a lot to lose if Saddam goes. You know, they've been richly rewarded.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Well, and I'm assuming that you're often around government minders, Anne. Is that true?

GARRELS: That's right. And everything has to be put through that prism. We're surrounded by government minders.

SIMON: Well, in the 30 seconds or so we have left, what have you gleaned from conversations with people there insofar as you can about how they feel on the brink of war?

GARRELS: Well, there are lots of people who adore Saddam, but I've come across a lot who loathe him. But not all who loathe him want the US to come in. They fear US intentions, fear war and they fear the aftermath of a war. A woman at the parade today said to me she wanted Saddam to stay in power because she was terrified of anarchy after a war, that all the factions and tribes would fight each other. However, I have come across people who dare to say they would welcome the United States. One man told me he and his friends would like to put a banner on their rooftop for the benefit of US pilots, and that banner would say `Welcome USA.'

SIMON: Annie, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you, Scott.

SIEGEL: NPR's Anne Garrels in Tikrit, Iraq.

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