- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

TIKRIT, Iraq — A billboard bearing Saddam Hussein’s blasted-away face still welcomes motorists to the city once honored — now stigmatized — as his hometown. But these days Tikritis show little of the ex-dictator’s storied defiance of the U.S. military.

Tikrit was the epicenter of Iraq’s Ba’ath Party hierarchy and the al-Nassiri tribe that filled the party’s upper ranks, making this city an important U.S. invasion target and a rebellious occupation conquest.

But in the past few months, Tikrit has quietly slipped off the map of Iraq’s trouble spots.

“Tikrit is what we’d call permissive. It’s not wholly antagonistic to us anymore,” said Lt. Col. Jim Stockmoe, intelligence officer for the 1st Infantry Division, the Army unit that controls Tikrit and a surrounding West Virginia-sized slab of northeast Iraq.

Col. Stockmoe, puffing a cigar outside his office in one of Saddam’s grandiose palaces, said the U.S. military had finally reached a “live and let live” arrangement with Tikritis. For their part, city residents say they want the Americans out, but they seem to have mostly given up supporting insurgents.

“For me Saddam is history,” said Thamir Ahmed, a 32-year-old engineer in Tikrit. “He and his name have nothing to do with our city now.”

Military officials say the turnaround is due to a convergence of factors — from a recent effort to cultivate tribal sheiks and former Ba’athists as allies, to the small city’s layout, which makes it a poor base for an insurgency.

The city of 40,000 is also dominated like few others by a massive U.S. military base in a walled neighborhood of Saddam’s palaces. The base, looming over Tikrit on mud bluffs, is almost as large as the city itself.

Now the city that was once rife with rocket-propelled grenade attacks looks set to be placed under local control by Dec. 1, a month earlier than the Dec. 31 deadline. Local control means the U.S. military will shunt security duties to civilian governors, police and national guardsmen.

Col. Stockmoe credits the shriveling of insurgent attacks mainly to the division’s co-opting of local tribal sheiks. On May 23, 1st Infantry commander Maj. Gen. John Batiste met with a group of sheiks and agreed to stop returning artillery fire when mortar shells and rockets blasted the U.S. base.

In return, the sheiks agreed to lean on local insurgents to make them refrain from shelling the Americans.

For five weeks, no shells landed on the base.

“It was eerie, like peace in the valley,” Col. Stockmoe said. Scattered rebel attacks resumed around the June 28 transfer of sovereignty, but have remained low ever since.

The military has also given up on shunning former Ba’athists. Several have joined the division’s local advisory group, getting $100 each time they show up to a meeting.

“It’s a more pragmatic approach,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sinclair, commander of the 1st Infantry battalion that patrols Tikrit. “All Ba’athists aren’t bad. They did certain things because they were following a dictator.”

Col. Sinclair said his soldiers strive to keep the counterinsurgency battle invisible to civilians, focusing raids on fighters, so neighbors aren’t snared in the dragnet.

The 1st Infantry also has cataloged potential insurgent helpers. All taxi drivers — once a source of intimidation of Iraqis working on U.S. bases — have been photographed, fingerprinted and given licenses to paste in their windshields. Every business owner in Tikrit also has been photographed and logged in a database.

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