- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

OWJA, Iraq - Like many residents of Saddam Hussein’s ancestral village of Owja, No’man al Nasseri bears more than a passing resemblance to its most famous son.

The swarthy face wears much the same crooked smirk, a hefty moustache graces the lip and a generous waistline testifies to years of privilege as a member of the tyrant’s extended family.

Last week, though, as fellow Sunnis continued to weep at Saddam’s grave in Owja, the former general looked embarrassed when asked why locals hadn’t launched revenge attacks on the village’s small American army base.

“It is not true what people say in Baghdad, that we in Owja are cowards or collaborators,” he protested nervously.

He said that the wealthy residents of Tikrit and Owja have simply played a different role in the insurgency, acting as bankrollers rather than foot soldiers.

As he spoke, a tranquil scene nearby showed just how comfortable Owja’s relationship with Saddam’s conquerors has become.

On the banks of the Tigris, which skirts the village, a lone American soldier was fishing guarded only by a small fence and easily within range of any sniper across the river. Such a relaxed posture would be unthinkable in Baghdad or many other parts of the Sunni triangle, where guerrillas exploit any gap in U.S. military security.

Yet in Owja, and in the neighboring city of Tikrit, where Saddam later moved, the insurgency that last week claimed its 3,000th American life has been largely absent.

That the al Nasseris and their sub-clans are not fighting the Americans is all the more remarkable, given the amount they had to lose when Saddam was toppled in 2003. As members of Saddam’s own tribe, they were among the few people he instinctively trusted, giving them influential jobs and ensuring that Owja and Tikrit prospered as the rest of Iraq floundered under international sanctions.

For the past three years though, there has been little sign of the al Nasseris or other residents of Owja and Tikrit honoring Saddam’s tribal largesse by resisting the American presence. Many, indeed, are said to work in U.S. Army bases, something that would earn them a death sentence in other Sunni towns.

“We have good working relations with Saddam’s tribe,” a local U.S. military spokesman confirmed. “We work on many infrastructure projects together and they support the governor.”

U.S. commanders attribute the pacification of Saddam’s tribal homelands to the close attention they paid to the area after the invasion. Fearing that it could become an insurgent haven, they established a large military base in Tikrit and made strenuous efforts to hunt down senior regime figures who lived there.

The spirit of co-operation that has sprung up since then is not appreciated by many Sunnis elsewhere, however. Even some who were no fans of Saddam see it as a dereliction of family loyalty arguably the greatest sin of all in Iraq’s tribal society.

“Why have there been no big attacks in Owja?” one Sunni from Baghdad asked last week. “They have sold their ground to the occupation for the money, and now they are protecting them. They should feel ashamed because the Americans arrested their relative and their leader.”

Such charges are denied by Owja residents, who say they grieve for Saddam as hysterically as the pilgrims flocking to his grave. One day last week, for example, the village was buzzing with claims that Saddam had appeared as the Man in the Moon the night before.

Others now see their main enemy as the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government. “Our president has been killed by the Iraqi government, not the Americans,” said Omar Sittar, 32, a teacher.

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