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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Insurgency Fades as Tikrit Focuses on a Fresh Start

June 27, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

TIKRIT, Iraq — Lt. Col. Jeffrey A. Sinclair strolls down "RPG Alley" in downtown Tikrit, chatting up shopkeepers and pedestrians. His Egyptian interpreter trails not far behind, forgoing a military-issued flak jacket and helmet in favor of a baseball cap and Polynesian shirt.

When the commander passes the gate of a government ministry, he hears something that would have been unthinkable in Tikrit a year ago.

"Tea?" a guard asks, extending the customary Iraqi offer of hospitality.

Last summer, Tikrit was the one of the baddest towns in Iraq, a hot spot in the emerging anti-American insurgency and a city that U.S. forces could barely enter in tanks without being shot at, much less walk through.

Today, Saddam Hussein's hometown wouldn't make the Top 20 list of Iraq's most dangerous cities. As insurgents rise up in other Sunni Muslim-dominated towns such as Fallouja, Baqubah and Ramadi, Tikrit has remained relatively quiet, drawing praise from U.S. officials and scorn from some Iraqis.

At the 1st Infantry Division's base camp -- a sprawling riverfront compound of former presidential palaces -- there's an eerie feeling of calm these days. Mortar attacks, once a nightly occurrence, have all but stopped. Soldiers were recently told that they could shed their flak jackets on base. It's been two months since a patrol was hit with an improvised explosive device.

"It's gotten a lot quieter," said Capt. Aaron Coombs, 30, a sniper squad leader from Addison, N.Y. "We sit around and brainstorm about it at night, but no one knows exactly why."

American and Iraqi officials attribute the calm to a variety of factors, including a U.S. military waving around dollars instead of guns and a weary population that simply grew tired of fighting. Also, the Iraqi insurgency has shifted away from Hussein loyalists, such as those found in Tikrit, toward Islamic fundamentalists, such as those in Fallouja and Najaf.

Military officials say Hussein's capture in December also dealt a blow to the insurgency in Tikrit, which had been showered with money and privileges under the former regime. Once Tikritis realized that they could never restore their old way of life, U.S. officials said, they began looking forward -- to what the Americans could provide.

"These are people who are survivalists, the show-me-the-money types," said Sinclair, who commands the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment.

So Sinclair has tried to do exactly that. He keeps $50,000 on hand at all times, doling it out to business owners in need of a loan or families who have fallen on hard times. The military has earmarked $58 million more to be spent on civic and community projects, including $43 million for the University of Tikrit.

"That's the secret," said Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division. "You can win over the former regime elements. You give them alternatives. You give them a job. If terrorists are paying these guys 100 bucks to take a shot at us, we just have to out-price them. Before you know it, these guys have been co-opted, and they're part of the solution."

Leaders and residents of Tikrit agree that the local insurgency has waned.

"I'm not even sure I can say there is a resistance anymore in this town," said Col. Osama Adham, a police chief.

But Adham and other residents scoff at the notion that the U.S. military has won the town over with money. Resentment and anti-Americanism remain high in the city. "They have done nothing," Adham said. "Though we hope one day they will live up to their promises."

Instead, residents say that insurgents, at the urging of chieftains, began to scale back their activity, believing that it was counterproductive to launch attacks in their own backyard.

"We could act like those other cities. We could rebel," said Abud Hussein Jassim, 46, who, like many others in Tikrit, is a former military officer. "But it will bring us nothing but more killing of our people and destruction of our city. Is that what we want?"

The new quiet in Tikrit has been noted in other areas, drawing ridicule from some Iraqis who say the decline in attacks here proves the city's residents are "opportunists" who care only about money and privilege.

Criticism is particularly strong in the Sunni Muslim town of Fallouja, where insurgents battled U.S. forces in April during a three-week standoff that sparked a series of anti-American attacks around Iraq. Fallouja and Tikrit are both part of the so-called Sunni Triangle, where support for Hussein was considered to be strongest.

"The Tikritis should wear women's clothes and carry purses because they are not men," said Faris Fadil, 35, a Fallouja mechanic. "More than anyone else, it is their duty to stand and fight the occupiers because they were the beneficiaries under Saddam Hussein. But today they are closing their doors and staying indoors with their wives."

Tikritis bristle at such accusations.

"The men of Tikrit are not cowards. They fear nothing," said one Tikrit man, who would not give his name.

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