- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq Iraqi men watch suspiciously as Army Col. Michael E. Moody's Humvee rolls through downtown toward Saddam Hussein's palace on the Tigris River. Almost nobody waves.
Nearby, a team of U.S. Marines walks carefully down a sidewalk alongside a row of shops in Saddam's ancestral hometown and a large, partially defaced mural of the ousted Iraqi leader.
Turning off a central avenue, Col. Moody's Humvee suddenly stops behind a glut of cars. About a dozen men have gotten out of their cars and are standing in the street waving at a bus, which appears to be stuck in the middle of the traffic jam.
An uneasiness spreads over those riding in the colonel's Humvee.
"Request permission to cross over the median sir," says Col. Moody's driver, Spc. John P. Deschambault, 21.
"That's fine," answers the colonel. "Just do it slowly so we don't get a flat tire."
The Humvee rolls on, weaving without incident through oncoming traffic, down a ramp and past several guards and a tank posted at the entrance of the palace complex.
"Tikrit is a [dangerous] place," Col. Moody says later. "The drive through downtown is some pretty scary stuff. … Those are former SRF [Special Republican Guard Forces] guys standing around all over the place.
"If you ain't got your game face on," adds the commander of the 4th Infantry Division's Aviation Brigade, "that's just wrong."
Combat hostilities have all but ceased around Tikrit, the home of several of the ousted dictator's Special Republican Guard units, where the 4th Infantry has established operations at an air base formerly used by the SRF.
Since the 4th Infantry got to the base on Saturday, dozens of Iraqis believed by U.S. military officials to be former SRF members who have shed their uniforms have tried repeatedly to sneak onto the base.
When apprehended, the Iraqis say they once worked at the base and want to retrieve furniture or tools they were forced to leave behind when the war started.
When Col. Moody and Spc. Deschambault were leaving the base for their trip to Saddam's palace, they came across a car near the entrance trying to discreetly circumvent a row of military trucks.
The car's driver, a middle-aged Iraqi man who said he once lived on the base, approached Col. Moody's Humvee and appeared angry when the colonel calmly, yet forcefully told him the base was off-limits.
Despite its location on the edge of a potentially very anti-American central Iraqi city, Col. Moody says the air base is prime real estate for the 4th Infantry's stabilization efforts. "We'll be able to maintain operations at a fairly high tempo because of where we're located," he says. "[It] offers accessibility from air and ground."
The colonel's trip to Saddam's palace early this week was a regular one. Several of the 4th Infantry's armored mechanized units are living on the palace grounds and the division's leadership has established an operations center there.
Pools of turquoise water drawn from the Tigris River surround several of the palace's more luxurious buildings. Carved pillars reach down into the water from beneath one of the structures.
Soldiers could be seen splashing in the water to cool off from the 90-degree midday heat this week.
From atop the smartly tiled roof of one building, a soldier looking over the palace complex remarked: "Darn, they may be our enemy but they sure lived in style."

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