A decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq, years of violence and disdain for the country’s current political class fuel nostalgia for Saddam Hussein — the man the foreign troops fought to oust.
Though accusations of ties to Saddam and his regime are used to tar politicians in Baghdad, residents of his hometown Tikrit express fondness for a man who, though responsible for ordering the deaths of countless Iraqis, is remembered for having imposed stability, which has long been missing.
“I will remain proud, and remember Saddam,” said Khaled Jamal, a watch-seller in Tikrit. “Our country has not changed or developed in the past 10 years.”
Along with his frustration over the slow pace of rebuilding — many Iraqis, not just in Tikrit, suffer from poor provision of basic services and high unemployment — Jamal also voiced another commonly-cited frustration: the apparent rise in sectarianism since Saddam’s fall.
“There was no sectarianism, no Sunni and Shiite,” Jamal said.
“But now, that is the first question you hear when you meet someone,” he added, referring to queries over a person’s province of origin, often used to find out their religious background.
Saddam was born on April 28, 1937 in the village of Al-Oja, just south of Tikrit, which lies north of Baghdad.
An activist in the now-banned Arab socialist Baath Party, Saddam was sentenced to death in 1959 for plotting to kill Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Qassem, and was a senior figure in the party when it took control of Iraq in a 1968 military coup, though he only rose to power 11 years later.
Domestically, Saddam espoused a secular vision for the country and presented himself as an Arab leader who would stand up to neighbouring non-Arab Iran, but was brutal with his opponents.
He is held responsible for the killings of tens of thousands of Kurds in the “Anfal” campaign, and of up to 100,000 people who took part in an uprising against his rule after the 1991 Gulf War, as well as other massacres.
Internationally, he fought a costly and deadly 1980-1988 war with Iran and invaded Kuwait in 1990 before being evicted by a US-led international coalition, leading to crushing sanctions and a trade embargo against Iraq.
Saddam was an international pariah by the time of the 2003 invasion, his subsequent capture in 2004 and execution in December 2006.
But in Tikrit, he is remembered far more fondly as a leader who fought for Iraq and was at the helm at a time when Iraqis enjoyed relative domestic stability, especially compared to the brutal violence that followed his ouster.
Saddam lavished attention on Tikrit, to the detriment of other, particularly southern, Iraqi cities, but as a result his legacy in the city remains strong.
“It is natural that we remain proud of him,” said Umm Sara. “Despite the circumstances Iraq was living with, he was leading the country without problems.”
“Saddam helped us a lot, so it is natural that we cherish him just as others are proud of Charles de Gaulle,” said Abu Hussein, referring to the former French president.
“Saddam had a strong personality — he imposed it on those inside and outside the country.”
Residents who lived through the chaos of the post-2003 period, during which tens of thousands were killed in a bloody sectarian war, recall a pre-invasion time when violence was concentrated in the hands of the security forces and Iraqis could — in theory — avoid their wrath.
And though public services were poor — Baghdad residents received full electricity, but those elsewhere saw far less — the regime ran a substantial food-for-the-poor scheme during the UN embargo era in a bid to curb opposition to Saddam’s rule.
Now, Iraqis are reliant on private generators to fill the substantial power gap, jobs remain scarce, corruption is rampant and some are dissatisfied with their current elected political leaders.
“I am thankful to the current politicians,” said Ines, a 37-year-old teacher in Tikrit.
Referring to the struggles many Iraqis still face, and the frustrations they feel, she said: “They make us love Saddam, they make us proud of him, they make us miss those days.”