Letter From Tikrit: Native Son

About 110 miles from Baghdad, lampposts suddenly appear alongside the dusty highway snaking north--and each one has a portrait of President Saddam Hussein attached to it with neat little brackets. Here lies the city of Tikrit, hometown of Iraq's leader and a stronghold of loyalty to the regime.

Over the weekend, the town showed its devotion to Iraq's strongman with a special parade. And while many Iraqi cities have hosted similar events in recent weeks, Tikrit's demonstration of devotion can only be described as a tribal lovefest for Saddam.

About 30,000 Baath party civilian volunteers--led by groups of ululating women draped in long black abaya that reached down past their knees--marched in a vast plaza before sparsely populated marble viewing stands. Just as one group of volunteers from Al-Siniya district marched past wearing ominous-looking gas masks, another crowded into the grandstands shouting pro-Saddam slogans and waving rifles in the air.

One militiaman ran around brandishing a long wooden stick tipped with a wad of black asphalt--a traditional Iraqi weapon of self-defense called a migwar. Tribesmen armed only with migwars rebelled against British occupation troops in a 1920 revolt and, despite being outgunned, managed to liberate much of southern Iraq with their primitive weapons. Now the migwar is "a symbol that technology cannot stand up to the will of the people," yelled the volunteer. "My stick is better than a cannon!"

Tikrit is a place where tradition and tribal ties run deep. The majority of Iraq's 24 million people remain wedded to their tribal origins, and about a third of them still follow the diktat of their tribal leaders, or sheiks. The tribes of Tikrit have many members in government and even more in the Iraqi military. The process of tribal decision-making in Tikrit is a microcosm of the process all over Iraq--and it offers a challenge to the Bush administration's stated ambition to help bring Western-style democracy to Iraq as a precursor to spreading it throughout the region.

The vast majority of tribal sheiks are determined by heredity. If an aging sheik has no sons, he and other tribal elders--all men--gather together to choose the next leader. Tribal decisions can be consensual, but the process doesn't conform to Western democratic ideals.

Not long ago, leaders of the Al Douri tribe met to discuss the possibility of war against the United States. About 100 men--including the major sheik, nine sheiks from lesser sub-tribes, plus other pillars of the community--met in a large reception hall, or mudheef, to discuss how to prepare for conflict. In two hours worth of discussion, they agreed that men and women would participate in a two-month volunteer militia training course organized by the ruling Baath party.

But what about the young men in their 20's and 30's who presumably would be on the front lines, defending Tikrit? How do junior members of a tribe make their wishes and concerns known? "A young man's father or grandfather will represent his interests and convey his opinion," said Sadoun Sultan Al-douri, a representative of the tribe. Women normally have no say in the decision-making process. "It's not customary," he said.

Two Tikriti women of the Abu Mudal-al tribe, who were proudly watching women Baath party members marching in the parade, insisted the system made sense. "It is the men who know other men, who know which one is the wisest," said 39-year-old Kawakib Ibrahim. "Women don't have any contact with men outside their family, so how could they know who to choose?"

As one might expect, women in rural areas--such as the agricultural villages around Tikrit--live in a more conservative milieu than that of Baghdad. Kawakib is attractive, articulate and well-educated--she's an engineer--but still single even though she would like to be married. "I live in a remote district, so when women go out to get a higher education there are few men with similar qualifications," she explained shyly. Religious law allows Iraqi men to have up to four wives; though few husbands actually have so many, Kawakib confirmed that virtually all married men in her village in the Al-Dour district have two wives.

Still, her female companion stressed that matters of national importance--such as military training to defend Iraq--include the women in the tribes. "We took approval from our fathers and brothers to undergo militia training," said Hoda Latif, 34. "We learned how to fire Kalashnikovs and administer first aid."

Added Kawakib: "In ordinary wars there is no Islamic obligation for women to participate. But when the enemy comes into your country and threatens your home and your family, every woman and man is obliged to fight. All the tribes of Iraq are united. We'll be proud of any tribe that repels American invaders--even if the tribe doesn't come from our province."

Politics are local for Tikritis. And at this particular moment, grassroots interests are inextricably entwined with the fortunes of their famous native son. Saddam Hussein's regime has smiled upon his hometown over the years; Tikrit's roads are wide and smooth and the highway near the city is the only section on the road heading north from Baghdad that has lights. If anything, the omnipresent presidential portraits are even vaster and more varied in their poses than elsewhere. One area just off the highway looks at first like a roadside rest stop; but instead it leads to a gigantic portrait of Saddam that evokes the Islamic warrior Salahuddin and is surrounded by replicas of giant Arab coffeepots made of cement.

Aren't Tikritis worried about the possibility that their city will be a special target for any U.S.-led invasion and bombardment, simply because pro-regime loyalties are so strong here? The answer, at least in this militaristic setting with many people listening, is universal. "I'm not afraid. I'll be a human shield for the city and for our beloved leader," said a 29-year-old peasant named Chaloub Ibrahim, a militia volunteer who held a large Saddam portrait reverently in his roughhewn hands. When asked which tribe he came from, he initially answered, "the Azzawi." But then he quickly added: "My tribe is Iraq and my sheik is President Saddam Hussein."