March 18, 2008 / 12:28 AM / 10 years ago

In Tikrit, Saddam's memory lives on in watches

<p>A vendor displays watches with pictures of Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein in a shop in Tikrit in this March 14, 2008 file photo. Five years after the fall of Hussein, his memory lives on through wrist watches as people in his home town and birth village seek reminders of a time of safety, jobs and cheap living. REUTERS/Sabah al-Bazee/Files</p>

TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) - Five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, his memory lives on through wrist watches as people in his home town and birth village seek reminders of a time of safety, jobs and cheap living.

In Saddam’s home town of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, watches featuring an image of the former Iraqi leader on the dial sell like hot cakes to a mostly older crowd, while younger shoppers just like to try them on and pose, watch seller Hamad Younes said.

“People love these Saddam watches,” said Younes of the timepieces, which have a starting price of $100 and feature a smiling Saddam in military or Arab dress.

“They never stay in stock more than two or three days. The people of Tikrit love Saddam,” he said.

Saddam drew many of his most trusted officials from the Sunni strongholds of Tikrit and the neighboring village of Awja, where he was born in 1937, relying on tribal loyalty to ensure his absolute grip on power.

Loyalty was rewarded with the finest imported goods and lavish state support.

Nostalgia for Saddam’s rule and a longing for a time when many Sunnis reveled in preferential treatment has driven the trade in the watches and other reminders of the Iraqi leader.

“People have started to ask for pictures of Saddam. Saddam mosque asked for a picture to hang above their door, that was the last one I did,” said Shayban al-Aloosi, a painter and printer in Tikrit.

Another picture of the fallen leader hangs in the reception of a children’s welfare centre. “Saddam died a martyr, and will remain a hero of Tikrit,” the centre’s administrator Fatin Mohammed said.

Saddam was hanged in December 2006 for crimes against humanity.

“What did the Americans bring? Hunger, arrests and killing. I wish Saddam was back. We cry for the time of Saddam,” said Khodaeiyar Salah, an old man dressed in traditional Arab robes in Tikrit’s central marketplace.

BUSTLING TIKRIT

Tikrit, capital of Salahuddin province, is a bustling city of 900,000 people, and shows little outward sign of still mourning its most famous son. Traffic clogs its streets, people crowd its shops and officials say the city is safe and open for investors.

“We have achieved security in Tikrit, and ... because of the security, stability and reconstruction, it is open to anyone who wants to invest,” police major Raad Subhi said.

A sign above an entrance to the city welcomes visitors.

Tikrit has plans to convert the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s old palace, now in state of disrepair and covered in graffiti left by Iraqi and U.S. soldiers, to open it to the public.

“Whether Saddam’s here or not here, it doesn’t matter to us. We just want to live and move on,” said taxi driver Bassam Razuk.

But in Awja, the village where Saddam was born and laid to rest, a neglected appearance mirrors the mood of its people. Crude graffiti covers its walls, the roads are empty and dead trees are all that remain of its once-proud gardens.

“The worst day of my life was when Iraq fell. Today Awja is empty, there are not many people left. All my aunts and uncles have gone, or were arrested,” said Suleiman al-Nasseri, 25.

Not everyone in Tikrit was close to Saddam, but almost everyone in Awja was related to him in some way. This meant many were targeted by laws meant to punish Saddam’s cronies.

Otherwise, like other Iraqis with money, many in Awja fled the violence that engulfed Iraq since Saddam’s fall. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Bombings and shootings remain a part of daily life in Iraq despite an overall drop in violence since Sunni Arab tribes turned on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and 30,000 extra U.S. troops were fully deployed last June.

“Americans say Saddam was a killer and oppressor. Now there’s more killing and oppression than in Saddam’s time. Every day there is killing, gunfire ... only when the Americans came did we hear about racism and sectarianism,” said Awja grocer Yassen al-Omar, who said he was related to Saddam’s cousins.

Shi‘ites, Iraq’s majority Muslim sect, and Kurds suffered terribly under Saddam, whose Sunni Arab-dominated government crushed dissent through brutal military campaigns, torture and executions.

At Saddam’s marble tomb, covered in a riot of flowers and surrounded by pictures of the former leader, a group of men said prayers. The graves of Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay, who died fighting U.S. troops, are nearby.

“Saddam was a candle of the tribe and its light today and forever. We miss him when we see him in pictures or on the news, and I swear we cry when we visit his grave and those of his sons, God rest them,” Saddam relative Yaseen al-Majid said.

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