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thedrifter
12-31-06, 08:08 AM
December 31, 2006
Division That Caught a Dictator Takes His Execution in Stride
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL

KILLEEN, Tex., Dec. 30 — They went to war to oust him, tracked him to his spider hole and battled the insurgency he left behind. But on Friday night, as Saddam Hussein faced the gallows in Baghdad, the soldiers of Fort Hood had better things to do than to count down a dictator’s final minutes.

Three years and two weeks after troops of the Fourth Infantry Division celebrated their capture of Mr. Hussein by printing up T-shirts with his shaggy likeness and the boast, “We got him,” the bars, restaurants and shopping malls of this central Texas city that supports the vast Army post were packed with troops and their families doing, it seemed, everything but following the death watch in Iraq.

Televisions flickered overhead to the clink of beer bottles, but the whoops of excitement were for football-game end runs and touchdown passes.

But around 9 p.m. local time, when news of the execution filtered out and some channels were switched to the news, Chad Story, an Army pilot, sat with his wife, Angela, in the Outback Steakhouse, and called it “great news.”

“I just found out two seconds ago,” he said, acknowledging that he had not realized how imminent the death had been.

But he said he did not expect much to change in Iraq. “They’ll be no effect on the war, unfortunately,” he added. Asked if he supported continued American involvement, he hesitated.

“Say yes,” Mrs. Story prompted, “it’s your job.”

As word spread, soldiers in sweatshirts and turned-around ball caps seemed surprised that the sentence would be carried out so quickly, wondering aloud whether it would be shown on television.

Fort Hood, which is the largest active duty armored installation in the country — covering 340 square miles in central Texas halfway between Austin and Waco, and stretching 26 miles east to west with a population of 71,000, including 42,000 troops — was closed to news media interviews over the holidays, an Army spokesman said. But soldiers, many either just back from Iraq or about to go, were everywhere in and around Killeen.

Travis Fowler, a motor transportation specialist with two tours in Iraq, was at the A-1 Classic Tattoo parlor, watching his friend, Randy Rayburn, commemorate his graduation from basic training with his first tattoo, an inked tribute to his native Oklahoma. The proprietor, a heavily tattooed giant who said he went by the name Cowboy, bars television from his premises.

“It breaks my heart,” Cowboy said. “I got a lot of tattoos that are not coming back.”

At a Hooters restaurant, Pvt. James Jones, a combat engineer with orders to go to Iraq early in 2007, sat with his father, James, a Korea veteran; his mother, Tina; and other family members, aware, they said, that history was being made.

“He’s caused misery for generations,” Private Jones said. “I wish it would hurry up and happen.”

He said it was lucky Mr. Hussein was not facing American justice. “Here you can appeal it for 20 years,” he said.

Across the room, Christopher Patin, a paratrooper bound for Afghanistan, said he had been in Iraq when news of Mr. Hussein’s capture crackled over the radio, stoking hopes that the war would be over soon. “It didn’t work out as we planned,” he said.

Still, he said he applauded the pending execution. “Justice will be served,” he said.

Across Highway 190, which divides Killeen into parallel commercial strips, a 24-hour Wal-Mart was crowded with soldiers and their families, many thronging the television section with sets tuned not to news channels but to sports.

Specialist Kenneth Kirkland, back last month from fueling helicopters in Iraq, roamed the aisles with his wife, Traciee, who is a manager at Subway and was still wearing her employee nametag.

Fearful of what she called “so much horrific news,” Mrs. Kirkland said, “I quit listening to the news when my husband was over there.”

But now, she said, she was following events closely. “My God,” she said, “they’re finally going to kill him.”

At a table in Boston’s Restaurant, Jerome Kyler, a building contractor who was visiting Killeen for the funeral of his father-in-law, a retired military officer, said the execution would shorten the war.

“He wasn’t really a leader; he just had a lot of followers,” Mr. Kyler said.

A relative, Anthony T. Craig Jr., a crane operator for the city of Killeen, was not so sure. “There’s somebody following in his footsteps,” Mr. Craig said.

Celebration in Michigan

DEARBORN, Mich., Dec. 30 — In this Detroit suburb that is home to the largest Iraqi community outside the Middle East, hundreds of people celebrated Mr. Hussein’s death long into the early hours of Saturday morning, praising God as affording them revenge against the man whose regime killed many of their relatives. They expressed hope that the hanging would quell some of the violence in their homeland.

“The best gift for our happy new year is the murder of Saddam Hussein,” Imam Husham al-Husainy, director of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center, shouted from atop a parked car after news reports confirmed the execution.

Warren Avenue, a thoroughfare lined with Middle Eastern shops and eateries, was jammed with sport-utility vehicles and minivans, their drivers honking incessantly while passengers waved Iraqi and American flags through the windows.

Many gathered outside the Karbalaa center early in the evening had lost uncles, fathers and brothers to Mr. Hussein’s Baathist regime.

Mr. Hussein’s death, they said, keeps future generations of Iraqis from suffering as their families did.

“It’s the biggest happy day in my whole life,” 19-year-old Ahmed Alaboudi said. “We lost millions of people because of Saddam. But now our home is going to calm down, and everything is going to be O.K.”

Many in the crowd of about 200 said there would be fewer insurgents with Mr. Hussein gone.

“They have nothing to fight for,” said Diaa Tamimi, 38, who was arrested three times in Iraq because his uncle did not like Mr. Hussein. “Now I think they’ll give up.”

Mr. Husainy, the imam, said: “The world without Saddam is a much safer place. Even if he is behind bars, he still gives hope and support to his followers and to the terrorists.”

The celebration — confined mostly to one parking lot — was smaller and more subdued than the demonstrations throughout Dearborn when Mr. Hussein was captured.

Reaction From Times Square

In Times Square, the news began appearing on the enormous television screens around 10:30 p.m. on Friday, but few of the tourists snapping pictures immediately noticed.

Pak Mark, 45, from White Plains, said: “I actually don’t think he should die. He’s a head of state. There’s a lot of other people who have done a lot worse. There’s a lot of atrocity that’s done all over the world. Why only him?”

Pat Robertson, 52, who was visiting from Oxford, Miss., spent a year in Baghdad screening Iraqi police recruits. Ms. Robertson said the execution was a victory for fledgling democracy. “They did it themselves,” she said. “I’m so proud of them.”

Andy Sierra, 20, of Brooklyn, noted that Osama bin Laden was still at large.

“The U.S. should stop worrying about this whole execution and find bin Laden,” Mr. Sierra said. “That’s all we’re hearing about: Saddam getting executed. Another group of soldiers are getting murdered every day and we’re still worried about the same thing. We’re not worrying about what else is out there.”

Nick Bunkley contributed reporting from Dearborn, Mich., and Cassi Feldman from New York.

Ellie