Baghdad // When Saddam Hussein was executed and buried near his hometown, Iraq's new rulers feared his grave would become a place of pilgrimage and a focal point around which those wishing to revive the banned Baath Party would gravitate. In the 2½ years since the former dictator's death, there has been a steady stream of visitors wishing to pay their respects to the man the United States went to war to overthrow.
The graveyard trips always rankled with the new Iraqi authorities, drawn from the Shiite majority that the former dictator had so ruthlessly oppressed. But the government made a point of downplaying the issue, viewing the pro-Saddam visitors as a tiny minority that would only gain publicity if barred from going to the grave. But recently concern about the well-wishers hit a new high with the circulation of a video showing young schoolgirls on an organised outing standing by the grave in Awja, near Tikrit, and singing Saddam's praises.
It was a step too far for a government that is desperately trying to put Saddam's legacy far behind it, and which is still fighting a deadly insurgency that is in part orchestrated by Saddam loyalists, including his right-hand man, Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, who remains at large. In response to the video, the authorities in Baghdad issued an order last week outlawing organised trips by schools in Salahaddein province, of which Tikrit is the administrative capital, instructing the local council to prevent such outings.
The move was greeted with defiance and dismay by some in the town where the former Iraqi leader was born. "No one will be able to stop us visiting the grave of Saddam Hussein, even if the government sends the entire Iraqi army to stand in our way," said Abu Mohammad al Tikriti, a 55-year-old who attended Saddam's burial. "If we have to dig a tunnel under the dirt to get into the graveyard then we will."
Mr al Tikriti, from the same tribe as Saddam, said the move to ban visits was proof of the deposed leader's lingering power over a country that he ruled with an iron fist for decades. "The real people of Iraq know Saddam was a courageous leader and they want to come and express their love for him," he said in an interview. We have many people from north to south, from Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds who come here to thank Saddam for what he did for them and for Iraq.
"Of course the government is worried about this; they are frightened by the wrath of the Iraqi people, of their power and they are frightened by the prospect of a new revolution that will overthrow them." Saddam's supporters insist he was not a brutal dictator, but instead was a hard man who had no choice but to rule a divided country without mercy. They continue to view him as an Arab champion who prevented Iranian expansion into the Middle East, and remain proud of his role in modernising Iraq, a country that in the 1970s was the most advanced in the region; it was wealthy, secular, had high-quality health care and education, and close ties with the West. They accuse the new Shiite-dominated government of being pro-Iranian and driven by a sectarian agenda.
Although Saddam's opponents may concede that Iraq did modernise under his rule, they say it happened at too high a price: he jailed and murdered any political opposition, dragged Iraq into a pointless and costly eight-year war with Iran and then steered Iraq, via a disastrous invasion of Kuwait, into 10 years of crippling sanctions before, once again, heading into a war with the United States, this conflict his last. Abu Ziad, a businessman from Tikrit, said in an interview that he still planned to push ahead with plans to build a museum as a monument to Saddam Hussein's legacy.
"Saddam spent years fighting for Iraq's unity and prosperity, and he fought against the colonial ambitions of the Americans," he said. "Saddam was a strong and historic commander, which is why Iraqis from all over the country still visit his grave. "I want to expand the grave and make it a sacred shrine for all Iraqis, just as the [Islamic] religious shrines in Najaf and Kerbala are sacred. For lovers of independence and freedom, for the Arabs, Saddam's shrine will be a place of pilgrimage."
Abu Ziad, who asked that his full name be withheld from publication for fear of retribution by the government, said he had amassed a collection of Saddam memorabilia, and that he was biding his time to display it. "I have many of Saddam's personal possessions which were recently purchased for the museum project, and a huge number of photographs and pictures. "I cannot start the museum now because our government is loyal to Iran. But after it collapses and we have a true Iraqi national government, then the museum will open.
"Even Americans will come to visit it because they are obsessed with Saddam." Claims that the Baathist leader, hanged in Baghdad in 2006, still commands wide support and respect were dismissed as exaggeration by Khaled Salam Low, a professor at Tikrit University. "There have been some visits to the grave, by relatives and admirers but not enough for it to be relevant, not enough that it is of any importance," he said. "There are Baathists who want to keep the image of Saddam alive so they are actually paying schools in Tikrit to organise these grave visits.
"It is part of an information war, the Baathists want to cement support and try to push their electoral ambitions." Mr Low said the decision to ban visits could prove counterproductive, but that the Iraqi authorities were justified in doing so. "This is about the security of the state and the government can take what steps its thinks are needed, and I think they will have support if they stop any sectarian strife or violence. They have not banned all visits and I think even this step of banning schools will be temporary."