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Saddam Remains Center of Speculation on 66th Birthday

Saddam Remains Center of Speculation on 66th Birthday

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Saddam Hussein's 66th birthday arrived Monday with none of the elaborate fanfare of past years but with rumors that the deposed dictator was still alive -- and was planning something dastardly to mark the occasion.

In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, small groups of supporters, including some members of his al-Tikriti clan, staged demonstrations in favor of their overthrown patron and promised celebrations for years to come.

"Saddam Hussein is one of the great Arabic leaders. We did not import him. He was born in Iraq," said Abdullah Ialeh Hussein, who identified himself as Saddam's cousin. "The Americans have occupied us, but we will continue to support him."

In Baghdad, nearly three weeks after U.S. troops seized the city, the compulsory mass celebrations that Saddam orchestrated for his birthday were, predictably, absent.

"Whenever we had those elections for president, everyone voted for him 100 percent," said Hussein al-Khafaji, an Iraqi Air Force colonel. "And today nothing will happen, and this will prove that none of us liked him, not a one."

Elsewhere in the city, a ragged man carried a placard down central Saddoun Street depicting Saddam with horns and a noose around his neck. "This is your birthday. Shame on you," it read.

Nearby, young men hawked photocopied sheets of the U.S. Central Command's card deck of most-wanted figures, shouting to motorists, "Get the names of the Saddam clique!"

"Today is a day of happiness for me, because we got rid of him. He destroyed us," said Munhal Taleb, a 30-year-old carpenter. "We ask God that he never returns, because we are happy and -- God willing -- things will be better."

Saddam has made no public appearance since early April, and it is unclear if he is alive.

His captured deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, told American interrogators he saw Saddam alive after the two U.S. "decapitation" airstrikes, USA Today reported Monday, citing an unidentified senior Defense official. On Sunday, Gen. Tommy Franks told reporters that Aziz seems to be cooperating but "how cooperative and how truthful he is, we'll have to see over time."

This year was a far cry from previous passages of April 28, the day Saddam was born to a poor family in 1937. In years past, mass singing, dancing, burning of the Israeli flag and general lavish praise of Saddam were commonplace across the land to fuel his self-promoted personality cult.

On Monday, portraits and statues of him were gone or defaced, with his mustachioed countenance painted over or scratched off.

For days, Baghdad has been rife with rumors that Saddam planned to unleash some unspecified violence on the city to mark his birthday. There was no evidence that such a plan was afoot.

"How can he do anything to hurt us now that we are free?" said al-Khafaji, the Air Force colonel.

Some fretted nonetheless, and on at least one block many residents decided to stay in their homes for the day, fearing reprisals by Saddam or his loyalists.

In Tikrit, where "Happy Birthday" graffiti had been scrawled in several places, members of Saddam's clan marked the day in near silence, sitting in the house where he was born. Hussein, Saddam's cousin, said the small demonstrations around town were "a genuine display of our affection."

Not far away, Staff Sgt. Bob Garr of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said troops were proceeding with caution.

"Today being Saddam's birthday, we are aware and trying to keep more alert," Garr told Associated Press Television News. "But other than that, this is just a regular operation."

In southern Iraq, on the main road north out of Basra, about 50 marchers appeared bearing an effigy of Saddam fashioned from rags. As a crowd gathered, they threw the effigy to the ground, stomped on it and set it on fire.

"No, no, Saddam. Yes, yes, Islam," shouted members of the group, led by a Shiite cleric named Ali al-Rubei. Shiites were widely oppressed under Saddam, who made sure power was held tightly by his Sunni Muslim cohorts.

Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the new civil administrator of Iraq, addressed a group of Iraqis gathered in Baghdad to plan their new nation. Garner took note of the occasion, but he wasn't celebrating.

"Today, on the birthday of Saddam Hussein, let us start the democratic process for the children of Iraq," Garner said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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