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Saddam could flee north of Tikrit

In their drive to find Saddam, US may soon have to shift their attention to the Iraqi leader's hometown.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2003 01:29 IST

In their drive to find Saddam Hussein, US soldiers may soon have to shift their attention to the Iraqi leader's hometown, where he could find shelter with loyal tribesmen.

US military officials said on Tuesday that special operations forces were watching the roads leading north from Baghdad to Saddam's hometown and power base of Tikrit. A senior US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said several key, unidentified objectives to the north and northwest also had been taken.

On Tuesday, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Iraqi Kurdish groups opposing Saddam, claimed that he already was hiding in Tikrit. The party's newspaper said Saddam and his two sons as well as many of his top aides moved to Tikrit after fighting intensified in Baghdad.

Saddam was born on April 28, 1937, to a humble family in Uja, a village near the desert town of Tikrit, on the Tigris River some 140 kilometresnorth of Baghdad. Tikrit also is the birthplace of Saladin, the Kurdish warrior who defeated the Crusaders. Saddam often is portrayed in his propaganda as a new Saladin.

When Saddam first moved from the Tikrit area, it was to "Little Tikrit," a Baghdad neighborhood inhabited by Tikritis. There, he joined the Baath party, a pan-Arab group aspiring to link Iraq with other Arab states and drive Jews out of Israel.

He gained notoriety in 1959 when he participated in a failed assassination attempt on then-Prime Minister Gen. Abdel-Karim Kassem.

Haroun Mohammed, an Iraqi writer who watches Iraqi affairs from London, said Saddam could go into hiding in Tikrit. "This is his last resort if he ever makes it out of Baghdad," Mohammed said.

If Saddam does go into hiding, he may be able to organize clandestine cells and launch a guerrilla war against US troops similar to the one his Baath party waged in the 1950s. Flanked by mountains, a vast desert and the Tigris, the town could be a natural retreat and a possible escape route to Syria. In 1959, young Saddam traveled on horse through the desert to the Syrian border after the assassination attempt on Kassem. Syria has been outspoken in opposing this war and has allowed Iraqi officials to enter and exit Iraq via Syrian territory since the war began. But whether it would allow Saddam refuge or transit passage out of Iraq this time is unknown.

Tikrit is part of Iraq's Sunni triangle.

Sunni Arab tribes who might fear for their future could rally to Saddam, one of a series of Sunnis who have dominated Iraq's Shiite majority. Saddam's blood ties in the region are also important in a country where clan ties are key, and Saddam also has spent time to gain loyalty there.

Since the Baath party came to power in 1968, Tikrit has grown into a sprawling town of some 260,000 people, thanks to huge government investment in infrastructure and business. Saddam also built a huge army garrison at Tikrit where Republican Guard and Iraq's best army divisions were stationed. An air base and air force academy were also opened in Tikrit.

Most of the Republican Guards were recruited from Tikrit and surrounding towns.

Saddam also built some of the largest and most elaborate of his numerous presidential compounds in Uja. Iraqi dissidents said some of these sites are linked with underground tunnels to the eastern bank of the Tigris.

Still, Tikritis may worry about the possibility of becoming a US bombing target if they host Saddam. And while some may feel they owe Saddam, others have reason to hate him.

Hazem Sagheya, a Lebanese author who has written extensively on Iraqi affairs, recounts in "The Story of the Baath in Iraq" of Saddam killing prominent Tikritis he saw as potential rivals.

First Published: Apr 09, 2003 01:29 IST