The twin Saddam Husseins that galloped in heroic statuary on horseback atop the gate to his compound here are gone, melted down to make a memorial of a U.S. soldier being comforted by an Iraqi girl as he mourns a fallen comrade.
GIs' underwear flaps on clotheslines outside the opulent mansions of this city about 90 miles north of Baghdad. Sweaty soldiers pump iron in gyms constructed in Hussein's extravagant ballrooms. U.S. flags cover engraved poetry praising the dictator. His once-feared compound now has an American flavor, with Internet cafes, speed bumps, port-a-potties and a basketball court protected by sandbags.
The Americans have settled into Tikrit, the city long closely associated with Hussein, who was born in a village near here, drew his support from its residents and was captured nearby last December. U.S. officials tout the success they have had in keeping this stronghold of Hussein loyalists relatively peaceful and quiet, compared with the hostility and attacks directed at American soldiers in many other Iraqi cities.
"We are really making good progress" with Iraqis in Tikrit, said Capt. Donald Johnson, who lives with Iraqi National Guardsmen as they are training. "We have the same goals."
But it is an uneasy peace. Two bombs exploded in Tikrit on Sunday, killing a policeman and ending a three-month calm. And though former Iraqi generals now work with the U.S. military and Iraqi National Guardsmen go out with U.S. patrols, some Hussein loyalists hide and plot revenge. Iraqi and U.S. forces said Sunday that they had arrested a top Republican Guard general, a cousin of Hussein's, who they said was helping direct attacks on U.S. forces. Many residents watch this with sullen resentment of the Americans, their loyalty to Hussein undimmed.
"Of course, everyone loves Saddam. He was strong. He was courageous," said a town resident, a 27-year-old teacher.
"The Americans have treated Saddam unjustly," said a medical professional. "And the Americans will never leave. They want to control the region and the world from here," she said.
Both preferred not to be identified by name; fear remains an ingrained habit. "There were many things we could not talk about," said the teacher. "We were always watched."
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein began a binge of construction in Tikrit -- nearly two dozen palaces with columns modeled on his hands, mansions with soaring archways, bathhouses with manmade waterfalls tumbling into manmade lakes. The palaces were museums of cool marble floors, lavish decor, Shakespearean balconies and sweeping chandeliers.
Residents say they rarely saw Hussein. "He would fly in at night for a couple of hours and leave," said one woman. A poet in town was once invited to a guest palace to recite pentameters of praise to the former president. "He was like an emperor, listening to the servants compliment him."
U.S. Marines took Tikrit with very little resistance on April 14, 2003. They had expected the worst. Instead, the U.S. military remains mostly unchallenged here.
"In a lot of places in Iraq, [U.S.] patrols don't go out at night. They consider it too dangerous," said Capt. Aaron Coombs, a 30-year-old company commander from Addison, N.Y. He rode in the right-hand seat of an open Humvee as it prowled through the hot night down the alleyways in Tikrit last week.
He held his M-4 rifle, set on short burst, ready to fire. Behind him were three soldiers with rifles at the ready and one more gripping the trigger of a mounted machine gun. Behind that was another Humvee sprouting rifle barrels. But Coombs tried to make this entourage less threatening. He waved at children, hailed men sitting on plastic chairs outside their homes, stopped to chat with the Iraqi police patrols on each corner.
"We try to use an appropriate level of force," said Coombs, a seven-year veteran. "If we can do a raid by going over the wall and opening a door rather than blowing through it, we will."
Although two roadside bombs were discovered earlier, the soldiers showed no signs of tension. After midnight, when the curfew took effect, Tikrit lay still, bathed in the soft glow of green neon lights. Then four Bradley Fighting Vehicles churned through the town. The deep roar of their engines and the clanking of their heavy treads reminded residents of who holds the power here.
U.S. military officials say their success in Tikrit stems from a one-two approach. In the months after they took Tikrit, and again last April when there was a burst of attacks, the military reacted to attacks with night raids on suspects' homes, dozens of detentions and arrests, and lethal sniper fire. But as the violence ebbed, military authorities said, they made a concerted effort to turn over responsibility to the city's officials.
"Why things went right in Tikrit is that we don't hesitate to kill or capture the enemy. Then on top of that, we engage with people at all levels, from the governorate to the mayor to the police chief to people on the street," said Maj. Gen. John R.S. Batiste, commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division.
The morning after the night patrol, Coombs and other officers watched the graduation ceremony of 20 Iraqi National Guardsmen who had finished training as scouts. They gathered at a palace where Hussein once attended a parade honoring his birthday. In a scene that became a well-known news clip, Hussein stood on a reviewing stand, blasting into the air with a shotgun at his hip, while smartly dressed troops marched perfectly in step. Their guns had been emptied of bullets -- a precaution for the wary Hussein.
Now, below that reviewing stand, recruits of the Iraqi National Guard tried to learn to march. It was not very successful. But they carried live bullets for their guns. They were watched this time by the head of the National Guard unit here, Dakhel Hassan Hamud, a former Iraqi army colonel who says he was the first one into Kuwait during the 1990 invasion and one of the last to walk home at the end of the Persian Gulf War.
In a few months, he has recruited 600 guardsmen, he said, overcoming the fears some of them have about cooperating with the Americans.
"Yes, we get letters and threats. I got a bomb in my house," he said, shrugging. "But only one guy has been killed, and I think that was a personal grudge. "
The Americans have also spread money around. Two months ago, the brigade task force commander in charge of Tikrit, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sinclair, offered to meet students at Tikrit University. He took off his bulletproof vest, left his weapon and walked in. Only 15 students were there.
But Sinclair answered their questions and promised to come back in two weeks. The next meeting, in the library, brought 35 students. He kept up the regular sessions. He met with faculty and offered to help with their problems. Now he has promised $2 million for projects at the university, from new dorm rooms to a physics department. It is money and effort well spent, he said.
"That bought us a whole young generation inside this town," he said.
But while the Americans describe the inroads they are making toward acceptance by the residents, many in town see it differently.
"For the first three months, the Americans were welcomed here," said Saad Hariz Salihi, a surgeon and member of the town advisory council. "Then it turned. The first problem was the way they made arrests -- putting a man's head in a sack, tying his hands behind him and lying him down in front of his children and family.
"And when they dismissed all the Baathists and army members, you had bad unemployment here with former soldiers, policemen, government workers. That wasn't a huge mistake -- it was a fatal mistake. They were prey to the fundamentalists who came over the unguarded border.
"And don't forget, you had 40 years of America being portrayed as imperialist," he added. "From the time you were a baby, you heard only that your enemy was America and Israel. That doesn't disappear overnight.
"And finally you had Abu Ghraib," Hariz said, referring to the Iraqi prison where American soldiers abused captives. "It was a shock. Those of us who were trying to argue in favor of American civilization and culture suddenly lost all of our excuses. Suddenly people compared the Americans to Saddam."
On July 1, when Hussein appeared on television in a courtroom to face war crimes charges, the sentiment boiled over in Tikrit. An estimated 100 people demonstrated in the streets in favor of the former dictator. Iraqi police broke it up, firing warning shots into the air and making a handful of arrests, according to accounts here.
But they did not squelch the sentiment.
"Do you think the Iraqi people don't love Saddam?" asked a resident who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's the symbol for Iraq. We still love him. We love him as though he was the father to us."