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Many residents of Tarmiyah, Iraq, say they would be happy to see Saddam Hussein return to power. However, they were willing to do business with Capt. Casey Connors, who bought sweets during a recent visit.
Many residents of Tarmiyah, Iraq, say they would be happy to see Saddam Hussein return to power. However, they were willing to do business with Capt. Casey Connors, who bought sweets during a recent visit. (Anita Powell / S&S)

TARMIYAH, Iraq — The Saddam Hussein Fan Club is alive and well — at least it seems to be in this dusty Sunni town north of Baghdad.

Despite the former dictator’s capture nearly three years ago, many of the town’s residents — who now find themselves marked for death by the increasingly bold Shiite militias — look fondly upon the mustachioed despot and the good life he created for his fellow Sunnis.

Their feelings show in their cold stares at American soldiers and the bombs that tear through the roads daily as soldiers from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment drive through on patrol.

Company E 1st Sgt. Cecil Davis said it’s not uncommon to hear residents speak against Americans and in favor of their former leader.

“I think that the insurgents have a pretty good [information operations] campaign in the Tarmiyah area,” he said. “But I don’t know if they believe it or just want others to believe it.”

American soldiers say they will continue to do their job, which includes bringing new infrastructure projects to the area, supporting the local government and working with Iraqi forces. But changing perceptions is proving trickier.

But there is one point over which Americans and Iraqis agree: Over the last year, sectarian violence has intensified as local Shiites have become more empowered by Shiite militia leaders.

“One year ago it was better than now,” said Capt. Hatam Faiad Khalf, who guards a local water treatment plant for the Iraqi army’s 11th Strategic Infrastructure Battalion. “One year ago, if I go to (Shiite slum) Sadr City and tell them I am Sunni, nothing would happen to me.”

Local sheik Sa’eed Jasim Hamid said two of his sons were murdered for being Sunni.

“It’s different from last year,” he said. “Everybody is afraid of the militia. They are killing our sons.”

Although locals universally lambasted the Shiite militia, many denied having seen any trace of Sunni militia members, although American officials said Sunni militias are active in the area and are often responsible for strikes against American forces.

Given the security situation, many locals turn nostalgically to what they see as the good old days.

Oddly, among Saddam’s strongest proponents are young men whose recollection of the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf War and Saddam’s alleged genocidal fits would be nothing but a fleeting childhood memory.

“The new government must treat the people like the old government,” said Mohammed Ali, 18, who works at a fabric store. “They must treat them in a very harsh way. We want to go back to the Saddam Hussein government. Just give him one day. He will make Iraq better.”

Sixteen-year-old Mohammed Khalid excitedly agreed.

“Even if Saddam Hussein came back and just gave us water, we’d say OK,” he said. “Even the people who used to fight Saddam Hussein, today they wish he’d come back.”

Davis said the younger set’s nostalgia was born out of ignorance.

“None of them got their feet cut off,” he said. “None of them got shot for not showing up for the army.”

But adults, too, pine for their old leader.

“We wish Saddam Hussein would come back to power again,” said store owner Waled Khalid, 30.

Even the sheik, who has long participated with American forces, agreed. “They say Saddam Hussein killed 160 people in the Dujail area,” he said, referring to an 1982 incident north of Baghdad for which Saddam was tried by the Iraqi High Tribunal and faces sentencing in October. “Right now every day 200 people are getting killed in Baghdad. Those are just the dead bodies we’ve found.”

And what of the Americans?

“They are occupiers and invaders,” Khalid said flatly, gesturing to the group of American soldiers who strolled down the street. “That’s it. Any Iraqi wishes that the American army would leave Iraq.”

Local farmer Qais Latif, 37, was more diplomatic.

“Imagine if someone came to your country, wearing this uniform with this weapon and told you where to go,” he said. “Imagine how you would feel.”

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