The Dark Joke in Tikrit

TIKRIT, Iraq—”We left Baghdad before dawn,” said 1st Lt. Gregory Starace. “We took about 130 kilometers. They had some mortars. They had weapons, they were shooting.”

“So,” I asked, “can I write that a Marine officer told me, ‘In Tikrit, they had weapons and they were shooting’? ”

“Nah, don’t write that. Say the resistance was light.”

I looked at him and he smiled. “Lighter than expected.”

I stared at him harder and he laughed.

“Yeah, well, you could say, ‘It was a fucking joke.’ “

It was a strange joke.

We were standing on the bridge into the city, Saddam’s not-stronghold after all. The bridge had been hit twice. We had driven gingerly around giant holes, staying on the remaining rim. Marines, Humvees, and APCs were everywhere. Helicopters flew overhead. Earlier, there had been a short spatter of gunfire from small groups of irregulars. In the morning, two pickup trucks full of weapons were intercepted at a checkpoint. On the outskirts, the Apaches were firing into a last pocket of something.

“They didn’t surrender,” said Lt. Starace, who belongs to the Task Force Tripoli, 3rd Light Armored Battalion. He was getting serious again. “They were either killed or ran away.”

Tikrit, taken, was a ghostly place, deserted. Baathists, Republican Guard, Fedayeen—all utterly gone, traceless. Only a small crowd of a dozen men—laborers and poor shopkeepers, mostly—stood outside a restaurant in the shuttered main square and watched the American armor roll past. They did not like the Americans being there; they felt let down and abandoned. One said that the Iraqi army had not defended the city, that Iraqi soldiers had walked in Tikrit only when they were going home. He added that the Fedayeen had been out—Syrians, Palestinians, even Afghans. (“Did you see Afghans with your own eyes?” another man asked, skeptically.) None of them had seen Saddam or his family.

Akhmed Adnan, an engineer from Basra who lives in Tikrit, joined us. “Bush said he’d kill Saddam, but he didn’t kill him. He can’t kill him. Any day now Saddam will kill Bush, insh’allah, and take out the anger of the Iraqi people on Bush.”

Encouraged, the others added layers of scant hope, pieces of remembered propaganda.

“He lost the battle, but he has not lost the war.”

“The war will never finish until the Americans are all buried.”

“Saddam must stay. Only Saddam can have a grip on Iraqis.”

“Saddam is firm with a steel arm.”

“Only Saddam can govern us!”

The Americans, in the meantime, were surveying the country from Saddam’s opulent palaces, which stand on mud cliffs overlooking the Tigris. The sand-colored stone palaces stand among lush green trees. Though many of them are newly built, they recall the vast architecture of Versailles or the pharaohs. Venturing inside, I found a funhouse of corridors, ballrooms, balconies, antechambers, dining rooms, sweeping staircases, pillars, and stained-glass windows. There was marble of every kind, inlaid floors, and chandeliers the size of tract houses. The faucets of the marble baths were gold-plated. The ceilings were intricate Islamic plasterwork hand-painted in pastel tones. Brass balustrades abounded.

The Kurdish translators with me were stupefied. “We’ll get lost,” one said.

Marines cavorted under some of the marble colonnades, throwing footballs around and enjoying the view. “We’ve accomplished something,” said Maj. Chris Snyder, who is from Ohio. “To take a landmark that meant something to the regime. People will see that.”

“I’m having a blast,” said Sgt. Dudley, a reservist from Scottsdale, Ariz. “I’m young. It’s my turn to shoot and loot.”

It was a disquieting afternoon. Though the Marines kept up a good front, disbelief and fear—or the memory of it—still hung in the air. Saddam’s palaces had not been vandalized. They were merely empty of everything except awe and the footprints of desert boots in the dust.

Not a single portrait of Saddam—Saddam, arm outstretched, in front of an Iraq flag; Saddam smiling in front of a medical school; Saddam on highways; tiled Saddam in front of major buildings—had been defaced. In fact, there had only been a short spate of actual looting, during which people took gilt chairs from the one bombed palace, the one with two giant bronze Saddams on horseback—flanked by missiles, sword thrust forward—on the roof.

The resistance was light. I did, however, meet an Egyptian man, who had collected a small living room of furniture.

“It’s just a little,” he said. “A treasure for us.” He looked pleased.