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Saddam hometown hero

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Saddam is a hero in his hometown

By Vivienne Walt, USA TODAY

TIKRIT, Iraq At first glance, it's difficult to see much of military value in this dusty town, where Saddam Hussein was born and where he draws much of his strongest support.

A rusted Ferris wheel and rickety roller coaster are installed in a dirt lot. Sidewalk vendors sell ice cream to customers struggling to cool off in the searing heat.

But a different picture emerges on the edge of town. A sprawling presidential palace sits on the bank of the Tigris River. Ornate ochre walls ring the complex, and pillars peek out, topped with busts of Saddam. A short distance past that, two large military bases straddle a major road. Several anti-aircraft guns point skyward.

U.S. officials have said they regard a strike on Tikrit as hitting at the heart of Saddam's government. Iraqi leaders conduct key planning here amid the security of Saddam loyalists far from Baghdad, according to U.S. officials.

About 10 tents pitched outside one of Tikrit's military bases on Tuesday suggest that additional troops have arrived.

Tikrit and surrounding villages are home to Saddam's two powerful sons, Qusay and Uday; to Ezzat Ibrahim, the Iraqi president's deputy on the ruling Revolutionary Command Council; and to numerous Cabinet ministers appointed by Saddam.

U.S. officials pushing for a war against Saddam have said they hope Iraqis' support for Saddam will quickly collapse once a heavy bombardment begins. Even if that occurs, Tikrit could provide some of the toughest resistance.

"He's not just our leader. Here in Tikrit, he's our brother and our son," said Mohammed Ali Jibhouri, 56, a teacher. "We all love him."

Government officials have for years prohibited foreigners from visiting Tikrit, perhaps because sensitive military or security operations are based here, as White House officials believe. On Tuesday, however, officials offered a rare glimpse of Iraq's political heartland to foreign journalists. Three busloads of reporters were escorted to Tikrit.

The government invited journalists to Iraq to witness a national vote on whether to keep Saddam in power until 2009. Because Saddam was the only candidate, the result was never in doubt.

During a tour of Tikrit and three small villages, Iraqis said they would continue to support Saddam even if a U.S.-led war looked likely to oust him.

"Saddam has built good buildings and given land for the peasants. He's our national leader," said Abdul Aziz Rahman, 63, a retired English teacher in a nearby village, where a small side street was mobbed with voters squeezing into a schoolyard. "We will support him always."

It is hard to gauge the candor of such remarks because interviews are always conducted within earshot of government guides.

Saddam was born April 28, 1937, on the edge of Tikrit. Iraqi towns display thousands of murals and statues of Saddam, but in his hometown, there are few public details of his childhood available. No sites can be seen marking the president's early years. "His old school has his grades and an old photo," said Adel Adi, an information officer for Tikrit's provincial governor.

Asked whether reporters could visit Saddam's former school, Adi said, "That will not be possible." Officials guiding journalists on Tuesday said they could not pinpoint where Saddam had once lived.

The other famous figure from Tikrit is Saladin, regarded across the Middle East as the region's biggest historical hero. Saladin, a Kurdish sultan, captured Jerusalem from Christian Crusaders in 1187.

Saddam has frequently drawn comparisons between himself and Saladin. Some busts of Saddam show the Iraqi leader in Saladin's helmet.

Tikrit has twice been a key bombing target for U.S. and allied jets: during the Gulf War in 1991, and in 1998, when United Nations weapons inspectors were banned from entering three presidential palaces in Tikrit.

All Iraqis over the age of 18 were invited to vote on whether to keep Saddam in office. He assumed power 23 years ago. Although his face is everywhere in the country, the Iraqi leader has not appeared in public in years.

Millions of Iraqis appeared to pile into chaotic voting stations to vote for another seven years of Saddam's rule. Women in Tikrit pricked their fingers to draw blood, then used it to smudge a red mark on the ballots, casting their votes for Saddam.

Sitting under a large burlap tent in a tiny village northeast of Tikrit, a tribal chief said he had about 10,000 men under his rule whom he had mobilized to support Saddam's forces in a war.

"We have a large quantity of arms," said Sabah Al-Hasan, 32. "We are all ready to stand with Saddam Hussein against the United States and Britain."

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