al-awja, iraq - there's little good to be said about chasing a tyrant. It's not a job for the faint-hearted, especially when the chase takes you into Iraq's scorching desert heat, 200 klicks from the nearest a/c and without a body of water in sight. Still, the idea can be compelling. When Ali, my driver/translator/guardian in Baghdad, suggested we take a stab at tracking down Saddam Hussein, I was, how should I put this, intrigued.
After three months in the Iraqi capital, fresh stories were hard to come by. And there's nothing worse than growing insensitive over bomb blasts, but that's the situation I found myself in.
American forces have failed to turn up Saddam despite all their high-tech gizmos, surveillance drones, satellite imaging and communication networks. What made me think I could do any better? Well, I had Ali.
And so I find myself in al-Awja, a small village on the outskirts of Tikrit, where Saddam was born. "We need to be extra careful," Ali warns as we take the off-ramp into the village. "If Tikritis love Saddam, then these people worship him." His warning is well taken, although unnecessary. Along the village's wide avenues, there's not a single soul to be found. Deserted. It's an eerie feeling to drive past resplendent homes, while desert winds whip up sand demons that dance through the empty streets.
"Why don't we stop and knock on someone's door?" I suggest.
"I think we should try to find someone on the street first," Ali says in his "don't be an idiot" tone. We eventually find a small strip mall, white paint stained and peeling, with one variety store still open. The owner, Kanan Ibrahim, a Saddam carbon copy, is ecstatic at having some customers. We talk at length about the "president" and the wonderful things he did for the village. To Kanan, the Americans are brutes. "They do not understand our ways," he says. "They treat our women and children like cattle. We cannot accept this. It is an insult."
"What about the others," I ask. "Where is everyone?"
"Some people have fled," he says. "The ones who are still here are too afraid to come out of their homes. They're worried about being arrested by the Americans."
As we make our way back to the car, Kanan steps out of his shop to issue a final warning: "I'd leave town if I were you," he says. "The Americans are not allowing media here. They arrested an Abu Dhabi crew last week." It's not long before his words ring prophetic.
Back on the road, I tell Ali to head for Saddam's local palace (one of a half-dozen in the Tikrit area alone). We've heard that the place is now empty and looted and occasionally occupied by American soldiers. "Wouldn't that be a treat," I say to Ali, "finding U.S. troops lounging out in Saddam's palace?" He's not impressed.
We never make it there. Barely five minutes after leaving Kanan's shop, a man steps out of a black and white car and flags us down. Police. He leads us to the local police station, where, it seems, we are expected. The captain, a stern and slightly jaundiced man, asks the usual questions. Who are you? Credentials? What are you doing here? Then he throws in an odd query.
"Did you talk to anyone?" he asks. Ali and I both answer no, in unison, perhaps a little over-eagerly.
"Just driving around," Ali says.
"You know media are not allowed in al-Awja," the captain says. "You should leave immediately."
We comply, but before we can drive away, a man loitering outside sticks his head in the car window. "If you want to know more about Saddam, go talk to Hamad Khalaf," he says. "You can find him in the building next to the Civil Affairs office in Tikrit."
The next day we head straight there. In the decaying building next to it, Ali tracks down Hamad. They speak privately for a few minutes before Hamad hops into a blue Toyota and drives off. "We're going to follow him," Ali says, slamming shut the car door. "Follow him?" I ask. "Where?"
"To Samarra Kashifaye, his home village. It's just outside Tikrit."
"But do you trust him?"
Ali hits the gas.
We follow our mystery guide out of Tikrit and along the main highway south to Baghdad for an inexplicably long time. "I thought he said it was just down the road," I say to Ali, beginning to feel uneasy. He shrugs.
Finally, we turn off the highway onto a dirt road, past a row of sand-blasted trees and out onto the open desert. In the distance I begin to make out what looks like a shanty town - corrugated metal roofs and mud-brick walls the same colour as the desert sand. In the village, we're immediately surrounded by a group of angry men. "See how they treat us," one of them shouts, turning his back to me to expose red numbering brightly contrasted against the faded blue of his galabiya. "Like animals."
Ali tells me the village was raided four days ago by American soldiers looking for fedayeen. A dozen men were arrested and some Kalashnikovs confiscated, along with cash. "The men are being held at a nearby military compound," he says.
"Did they find any fedayeen?" I ask.
"There were never any fedayeen here," says Nouri Hasan, the most vocal of the villagers. "Another tribe told the Americans there were, but it's a lie. They have an old grudge against us. When the president was in power, the tribes never fought like this.'
None of the villagers can guess where Saddam might be hiding. "Look around you," Nouri says, sweeping his arm over the desert landscape. "He could be anywhere. The Americans will never find him." There's a resounding consensus that their beloved president will eventually return. "And when he does," Nouri continues, "the U.S. will run back to America like they did in the war with Vietnam."
"It was Sheikh Karim who did this to us," Hamad says. "It's well known that he's working with the Americans.
Sheikh Karim. Here's a new twist to the plot. I ask Hamad if he's willing to take us to the Sheikh. He says he'll go close enough with us to point out his compound, but it would be too dangerous for him to go further.
We follow Hamad back out to the highway. He stops just before a 90-degree bend in the road and approaches our car. "The compound's just that way," he says, pointing around the corner before quickly getting into his car and going back the way he came.
We take the bend and notice a large perimeter wall topped with razor wire. Looks like the sheikh has some enemies. I glance at Ali. "You sure you want to do this?" I ask, pulling up to the large metal gate. A tall, stout man with a scruffy beard and a Kalashnikov dangling over his shoulder pulls open the gate almost immediately. Ali introduces us and requests an interview with the sheikh. The guard nods brusquely. We walk down a narrow dirt path to the main house.
The guard leads us to a sparsely furnished waiting room. When the sheikh enters, we rise and offer our salaams. He's clean-shaven and dressed in Western-style shirt and trousers. He looks us over. "A Canadian journalist," he says. "You're the first I've met.'
I recount what I was told in Samarra Kashifaye about the raid and the fact that the people blame him.
He laughs. "These villagers are always at each other's throats," he says. "Even when Saddam was in power it was the same. Tomorrow they will blame someone else.'
"Do you know where Saddam might be hiding?" I ask. He laughs. "Listen," the sheikh says, leaning forward in his chair, "you can forget about Saddam. If you want my opinion, he is dead. My suggestion is you give up. You'll never find him, and no one around here is going to offer up any information.'
Interview over. And with that, I join the ranks of those searching for what cannot be found.