JACKI LYDEN, host:
When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, his tribe was the most powerful in the country. But after the U.S.-led invasion, the tribe's fortune sank. Its assets were frozen in 2003. The tribe's name was vilified by those who hated Saddam. And as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, members have been targeted in other ways.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Saddam Hussein's tribe, the Albu Nasr, is based a short drive from the northern city of Tikrit in the village of Ouja. It's a dusty and Spartan place with wide roads surrounded by farmland. Cresting a small hill is a large audience hall where the tribe conducts its business. A fireplace dominates one end of the long room near where tribal leader Sheikh Hassan al-Neda holds court. Sheikh Hassan says their misfortunes began in 2003 when the American occupation authority under Paul Bremer issued a decree freezing the assets of his tribe in Ouja.
Sheikh HASSAN AL-NEDA (Tribal Leader, Albu Nasr Tribe): (Through Translator) They came and registered every single name in the village, even the children. And five years on, we are still suffering. So now if I want to put some money in the bank, I can't get it back. I can't sell my car. I can't sell my house or land. We have no jobs. We have no income.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheikh Hassan says that many members of his tribe, some 2,800 people, have been affected. Everyone in Ouja, he says, from the poorest farmer to the tribal elders, is under sanctions. He says it's a form of collective punishment, and no one from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is helping them to resolve the issue.
Sheikh AL-NEDA: (Through Translator) No one cares about our case, and we receive no response from all the people we've contacted. We are walking into a dark tunnel, and there is no light at the end of it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR contacted officials at Iraq's finance ministry, which is in control of the frozen assets. They confirmed that some people had their assets frozen because they were high level Baathists or members of Saddam's inner circle, but they denied that the entire tribe is being targeted. Sheikh Hassan says the asset freeze was originally ordered to stop the members of the tribe from funding the insurgency.
Sheikh AL-NEDA: (Through Translator) They believed that the people of this village would sell everything and give it to the resistance. In fact, it's a very silly excuse because if we gathered together all of our funds and properties, it would not be enough to fund the resistance for a month.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, he says, the freeze is being enforced out of spite. These days, Sheikh Hassan has conflicting feelings about Saddam. On the one hand, his family is the guardian of Saddam's grave, which is located in Ouja, but Sheikh Hassan says Saddam also oppressed them.
Sheikh AL-NEDA: (Through Translator) People in the past thought that this village was built out of gold and silver bricks and that all the food and the prices were subsidized. I swear we were never given any rewards.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many members of Saddam's tribe were given important posts in the armed forces and in government ministries. The sheik's son recounted how he was once given a car by the Iraqi former leader. And the mere fact that they belonged to Saddam's tribe made them feared and respected. Now Sheikh Hassan says his tribal name inspires hatred and discrimination and worse.
Sheikh AL-NEDA: (Through Translator) I'm actually terrified. Both the former leaders of our tribe were killed within the last two years. How long can I survive? A year, six months? I don't know.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheikh Hassan's son points to the simple marble graves of Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay. Their father's tomb is much more elaborate. It sits in the middle of a white marble room surrounded by a random assortment of memorabilia, a desk he once used, pictures and framed copies of his speeches, a photo of the shoes he was wearing on the day he was hanged. They refer to him here as the father of martyrs. On this day, a few people have wandered in to take pictures of his grave, which is covered in white satin and festooned with plastic flowers. One of them is Abu Suifian.
Mr. ABU SUIFIAN: (Through Translator) I am poor and I am jobless. And the only way I can survive and support my family is to sell the one piece of land I own, but I can't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, Abu Suifian says he doesn't blame Saddam for his predicament. He lovingly walks through the shrine accompanied by his two children. Saddam never did anything bad to the Iraqis, he says. None of this is his fault. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Ouja.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.