Pro-Saddam Gangs Challenge Marines' Control of Tikrit

Wednesday, 16 April 2003 21:50 by: Anonymous
Luke Harding
The Guardian UK

Wednesday 16 April 2003

Gangs of Arab tribesmen armed with Kalashnikovs and machine guns were still in control of much of Tikrit last night, a day after US marines apparently liberated the town.

Hours after the Pentagon announced the war in Iraq was virtually over, Arab youths established their own checkpoint on the edge of Saddam Hussein's former stronghold.

They shot dead at least one Kurd, leaving his body in the middle of a roundabout, and opened fire on several cars while shouting pro-Saddam slogans.

American marines control Tikrit's almost deserted main square and the road south to Baghdad, as well as the main bridge spanning the Tigris. But they have failed to establish a presence on the eastern side of theriver, where hundreds of youths loyal to Saddam are holed up.

Light armoured vehicles have mounted reconnaissance patrols, but the armed tribesmen vanish whenever the Americans turn up and reappear only when they leave.

"We are just trying to protect ourselves and prevent looting," said one of the Arab gunmen, Mohammad Sahaf, 52.

"A lot of people have come here trying to steal our cars and property. Everybody has the right to defend themselves. We don't mind the Kurdish peshmerga. It's just the looters we don't like. If we see them, we shoot them." Vigilante groups were springing up across much of the country yesterday, suggesting that the US military controls less of Iraq than it claims.

In the north, skirmishes take place daily across the new, blurred frontline between Kurdish and Arab territory. Yesterday Arab villagers occupied a checkpoint on the desert road between Tikrit and Kirkuk that was abandoned last week by the Iraqi army.

The villagers opened fire on several Kurdish cars. They claimed Kurdish looters had tried to seize a local petrol station and that they were defending it.

The tension between ethnic groups in the north is intensified because US soldiers, although visible in Kirkuk and Mosul, have no presence in rural areas. Over the past week the Kurds have pushed south and east from their old autonomous enclave based around the provincial cities of Sulaimaniya and Irbil.

They now control a large chunk of territory on the road between Kirkuk and Baghdad as far as the town of Tuz Khurmatu, and are within 30 miles of Tikrit.

To complicate matters, many Arab villages along the way used to be Kurdish.

Under Saddam's arabisation policy, Arab settlers were moved into Kurdish areas and Kurdish residents were evicted. Many want to go back to their old homes.

Yesterday, Kirkuk had virtually returned to normal. Shops, offices, markets and even rubbish collectors were back at work. The city is being administered by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Kurdistan Democratic party has virtual control of Mosul. But tension is growing between Kurds and the Turkish-speaking Turkoman community.

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