Baathist cause abandoned by fleeing soldiers

 

Across the badlands of northern Iraq, Mad Max has taken control.On the roads leading into Tikrit, the final bastion of support for the failed dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, gangs of thugs armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades roar across the sand and stone of the ancient barren landscape in stolen pick-up trucks.

Terrorised villagers shoot at the passing vehicles, fearing yet another attack by looters masquerading as friendly Kurdish militiamen coming to restore order and confidence in the wake of the collapse of the Baathist regime.

As the wheat fields of the Kurdish north yield to the waterless expanse of the Arabic centre of Iraq, so the detritus of war thickens. Overturned rocket-launchers, burned-out tanks, abandonded ammunition caches, spent shells litter the roadsides.

Along Highway 398 between Kirkuk and Tikrit, as the tall buildings and silos of Saddam's city become visible in the distance, a creepy silence descends.

There is no traffic and checkpoints are unmanned. Villages, little more than collections of mud-and-straw bunglaows, appear to be empty.

The only sign of life on the outskirts of Tikrit are the American jet fighters circling in the sky above. The only sound coming from the city is the boom of bombs dropped by the B-52s hitting their targets.

The only welcome the city offered yesterday was the sight of a huge mural of Saddam Hussein, which rose above a roundabout on the outskirts. Only slowly did people emerge, seemingly from nowhere, as all the shops and houses were shuttered and quiet.

Anonymous and wary, a clutch of bearded men in full-length kaftans and chequered turbans approached the strangers in their midst. No waves were returned as they stood their ground metres away and watched through narrowed eyes.

"All the military have run away, they left four days ago," said Khalid Talaf Khat, an electrician. "The bombing has been going on for some time now and everyone is afraid." All the Republican Guard of Saddam Hussein's elite and loyal army had also left, said Khalid. And no one knew anything about the whereabouts of the man himself.

As Khalid spoke, a yellow pick-up roared up to the roundabout, a heavy machinegun mounted on the roof of the cabin, three men standing in the back, their RPGs cocked. Suddenly, every man in a kaftan had a gun, cocked and pointed at the pick-up, which just as quickly spun around and sped back in the direction it had come from.

Throughout the day, sporadic automatic weapons fire rent the air, and at least three convoys of journalists who entered the city were fired on. A driver and producer working for CNN were injured.

Tikrit has become an enigma. Last night, American special forces and Marines had entered the town and were said to be engaging in sporadic firefights, although no one could say with whom.

On the northern outskirts of the city, army depots, barracks and munitions dumps have been abandoned, equipment and ammunition left behind by the soldiers. Residents said that they had gone back to their homes, leaving Tikrit and the Baathist cause behind.

However, as American Cobra helicopters patrolled the edges of the city last night, and the bombs continued to rain down, it was obvious that some pockets of resistance remain.

Reports from journalists "embedded" with US forces approaching the city put the strength of the loyalist forces at 2,500. The figure could not be confirmed.

Sheikh Said Hassid Jabal, a delegate of Jalal Talibani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, yesterday met the leaders of Tikrit's 28 clans to negotiate a conditional surrender which would see the city join the ranks of the fallen.

Men and youths flying the green flag of the PUK have been marauding the countryside around Tikrit. On Saturday, they beseiged the village of Rashad, where four of their men were killed after they tried to steal a tractor.

Most of the clan leaders were willing to co-operate with the coalition and had pledged to do so as soon as they arrived, the sheikh told reporters. But the leaders of three clans - the Al-Ajil of Saddam Hussein's family, the Al-Douri of the former UN ambassador's family, and the Saddat - opposed giving up their city and had vowed to go down fighting.

Their reluctance is hardly surprising. For decades, the patronage of Saddam has showered Tikrit and its compliant inhabitants with wealth and privilege, raising them far above the lowly peasant ranks they had been in for millennia.

Those closest to Saddam have everthing to lose. And now, even with their backs to the wall and their patron nowhere to be seen, they are not prepared to concede the obvious: that the war is over and that they were on the wrong side.

With little remaining that resembles a governing structure, the people of Tikrit, like those of the villages surrounding the city, have been left to their own wits.

For the past four days, Ismail Horan Jeqiwi has been barricaded in his home with his family, where they listened to the bombs falling on the city just a few kilometres away.

Armed with a Kalashnikov, Mr Jeqiwi was ready to defend his family and his property. He and his neighbours, Arabs and Kurds, had united in their own defence and were acting as each other's lookouts, he said.

"The Americans are bombing day and night. Saddam has been good for us, but now it is finished and we want it all to end as soon as possible," he said. "We want to sleep, and we want peace. We need authority, because we don't want the robberies here. There are Kurdish looters, but also Arabs, and we are in between . . . We stay all together here at home, armed to defend ourselves against looters."

He added that a local public construction company had been looted of everything. However, unlike Mosul, a few hundred kilometres to the north-east, there is not yet any sign of the lawlessness which has engulfed that ancient and proud city.

By yesterday, at least 30 people had been confirmed dead in Mosul, and only with the efforts of the mosques and local clan leaders was some semblance of order beginning to return.

Around Kirkuk, about 100 kilometres to the north-east of Tikrit, the American presence is intensifying amid efforts to secure the oilfields, which hold up to 7 per cent of the world's total known reserves.

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers trundled through the streets there yesterday. Road blocks and razor-wire ensure that looting is minimised. Food supplies are returning to normal there and water and electricity are being restored.