Saddam's name more popular than ever in Iraqi oil town

By Patrick Cockburn in Baiji

16 October 2003


New babies are being named Saddam by their parents in this oil refinery town 160 miles north of Baghdad, such is the hostility to the US occupation, an official at the local births and deaths registration office said.

Iraqis queued yesterday for new dinar banknotes with pictures of Babylonian rulers and a 10th century Iraqi mathematician in place of a smiling Saddam Hussein.

But in Baiji, "Long live Saddam" slogans are scrawled everywhere. The mayor's office and a building which housed a pro-American opposition party are burned out, having been set on fire by demonstrators who brandished pictures of the former Iraqi leader.

A local sheikh said: "The people have decided that the disasters they suffer under the Americans are worse than those they suffered under Saddam Hussein." He pointed to a small pit in the concrete in the courtyard of his house where a grenade had exploded, thrown by someone who thought him too close to the Americans.

In the Sunni Muslim heartlands along the banks of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, Saddam is the apparent victor over the US in the eyes of the inhabitants. It is thought the former Iraqi president may even be hiding in the region.

Local leaders said guerrilla attacks were happening more frequently because many people who used to work for Saddam, often in his security services, were out of a job, and there had been a furious reaction to the random searches, arrests and shootings by US soldiers.

Anger exploded in Baiji two weeks ago when the US-appointed police fired into a pro-Saddam demonstration, wounding four people. The soldiers were forced to flee to the American base north of the town. US troops have returned, with snipers on rooftops and armour in the streets, but they can control the town only by using military force. This week a US soldier was killed and another wounded when their armoured vehicle hit a landmine.

In the house of Sheikh Baha al-Hachem in a village on the outskirts of Baiji, villagers bitterly ticked off grievances accumulated during six months of occupation.

Faidh Hamid recounted how his 15-year-old nephew, Qusai, was on the roof of his house, "trying to fix the television antenna when US soldiers shot him dead". Another time, an imam who had gone for prayers at 4am, and may have been breaking curfew, was killed.

A Swedish journalist witnessed US soldiers beat an elderly religious man, Maad Ibrahim, almost to death. Mustapha Can, a correspondent for the Swedish evening newspaper Aftonbladet, was with a US patrol, which was hit by two mortar rounds.

He told The Independent: "Suddenly I saw the soldiers kick in a door and drag out an old man who screamed, 'Me no shoot! please, please mister.' The soldiers shouted, 'Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!'

"They tied his hands behind his back and then, as he lay on the ground, one said: 'Keep his head still.' He slammed him on the head with his rifle butt again and again. Then the others kicked him. There was blood everywhere." US officers later admitted they were probably wrong about the old man, but said "these things happen in the heat of the action".

Iraqi leaders in the area say that while Paul Bremer, the head of the US civil administration in Baghdad, claims the guerrillas are an isolated remnant of the old regime, the soldiers assume the opposite. They assume all Iraqis are hostile and support the resistance.

In many cases this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since May, Haj Awwad Abidasad, a 75-year-old merchant, has been trying to get back $16,000 (£9,600) in Iraqi dinars and $4,500 in gold taken from his house by US soldiers. His son, Majid, a physiotherapist, was arrested and held for 63 days.

Mr Abidasad and his son have been told the money and gold were confiscated because a fedayeen, a pro-Saddam fighter, was found in their house, which they deny.

Mr Bremer was yesterday lauding the distribution of the new Iraqi currency, which no longer has a picture of Saddam. But in Baiji, suffering from the daily injustices and humiliations of occupation, it is no longer safe to criticise his rule.