Some of the glory that Saddam sought during his life is now being gained in his death. Of late, visits to the executed dictator’s grave have become more popular and frequent, raising government fears that the
Saddam’s birthday on 28 April, which during his rule was a national holiday, the fall of his statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad on 9 April 2003, and the date of his execution, 30 December 2006, which occurred on the eve of the Islamic Adha Eid holiday, leading to him becoming known as the ‘Adha martyr, have all become occasions of pilgrimage to his grave. Some local schools in his home province of Salahuddin have even been organizing group trips to the site.
The shrine is found in the village of Awja, Saddam’s birthplace which is located on the shore of the river Tigris, ten kilometres south of Tikrit city in Salahuddin. It was a village that enjoyed immense privileges under Saddam, even as the rest of the country suffered, and which has only just become accessible to ordinary Iraqi citizens.
Now, a stream of visitors – mostly Sunnis – from across the province and beyond is turning the grave into a site of remembrance. On one visit your Niqash correspondent witnessed the many ceremonies associated with visits to the site including the sprinkling of flowers on the grave, the singing of old national songs glorifying the president and the recitation of Quranic verses.
Before the visitor reaches Saddam’s grave hall he has to walk through an outer courtyard housing six marble graves of those closest to him, including his two sons Uday and Qusay and grandson, Mustafa, all of whom were killed by U.S forces in July 2003. Additionally, his half brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan Al-Tikriti, his deputy, Taha Yassin Ramadan, and the President of the Revolutionary court, Awad Hamed al-Bandar are buried here.
But for the most part visitors head straight for Saddam’s tomb in the inner room, only visiting these secondary graves when they leave.
The tomb room is adorned with objects and photos from Saddam’s past. Murals and poems describing glorious achievements sit at the right side of the grave, along with photographs and embroideries paying Saddam tribute. On one side there is a chair from one of the presidential palaces in Tikrit and Saddam’s own Quran, daggers and swords. On the walls hang pictures of the former leader, his sons and grandsons, as well as colourful banners representing Iraqi tribes and cities. On a side table sits a visitor’s book as well as a money box for those wishing to donate towards the construction of a mosque that will be linked to the grave.
But as the number of visitors to the grave increases, the government has grown increasingly worried, fearful that the site could become a symbol of resistance to the new order. During Saddam’s rule he constructed a powerful cult of personality and there are fears that, even in death, his memory could prove potent in unifying resistance groups.
Recently, the Council of Ministers issued a directive to the Ministry of Education and to Salahuddin province banning schools from organizing trips to the tomb after a group of young girls on a school trip were filmed singing his praises. "It’s natural that these visits create fear for the Iraqi government that the grave could become a sacred shrine for the supporters of the ousted president," said one official at the Ministry of Education on condition of anonymity.
Through this measure and other restrictions, the government hopes to stem the tide of people paying tribute to the past leader.
But while the government and many people fear the power of Saddam’s image and his return in a new form, it is difficult for those who glorified and loved Saddam to refrain from visiting the grave. It is even more difficult for the citizens of Awja, who regarded Saddam as kin and who did not suffer from his cruelty.
These people express anger at the government's decision to ban group visits to the ‘President’s’ grave. They continue to call Saddam ‘President’, refusing to use the word ‘former’ or ‘deposed’, and they also use the word ‘shrine’ instead of grave to express the holiness of the buried body.
According to Raed al-Nasiri, an Ajwa elder, the government is seeking to "eliminate Saddam from people’s memories." But he remains confident that attempts to erase Saddam’s mark upon the country will fail. “It is not easy to wipe out Saddam who led Iraq for more than thirty years by a government decision,” he said.
Another elder warned of the consequences of any decision to conceal or destroy the grave as rumours increase that the government may demolish the site.
Abdallah al-Muhsen, whose tribe has kinship relations with the former president’s tribe, said that locals will resist any move against the site. Local people, who loved and admired Saddam, “will not sit and watch if the government tries to do anything” against the grave, he declared.