TIKRIT, Iraq – Saddam Hussein's hometown loyalists celebrated his 66th birthday Monday with blood oaths and vows of devotion, three weeks after the U.S. military drove him from power. In Baghdad, residents scorned the ousted leader and swapped rumors that he would surface for a final birthday attack.
For the first time in a generation, Saddam's (search) birthday passed with no official fanfare, no compulsory celebration -- and no Saddam. For many Iraqis, that was just fine.
"Saddam and his birthday were a black cloud over Iraq. We all want peace and freedom. He deprived us of these things," said Moayed al-Duleimi, 37, a guard in Baghdad.
The deposed Iraqi president, whereabouts and health unknown, was last seen in early April as U.S. forces converged on Baghdad (search). American forces, who have been trying to kill or capture him, are still searching.
Since 1985, Saddam turned his birthday into a public event that fueled his cult of personality. Official celebrations often involved lavish productions, odes to the genius of his leadership and state-organized demonstrations including the burning of the Israeli flag.
In Tikrit (search), Saddam's hometown, supporters and fellow al-Tikriti clansmen said his memory would endure longer than the presence of American forces in Iraq.
"Happy Birthday" graffiti was scrawled in several places, and some members of Saddam's clan sat quietly in the house where he was born.
"Saddam Hussein is one of the great Arabic leaders," said Abdullah Ialeh Hussein, who identified himself as Saddam's cousin. "The Americans have occupied us, but we will continue to support him."
Not far away, Staff Sgt. Bob Garr said troops occupying Tikrit were proceeding with caution.
"Today being Saddam's birthday, we are aware and trying to keep more alert," Garr said. "But other than that this is just a regular operation."
About 200 people marched through Tikrit, chanting, "With our blood and souls we shall redeem you, O Saddam," a chant which was a fixture at state-sponsored events for years. Some carried pictures of him. "Down, down Bush!" they said in English.
American Humvees, escorted by two Bradley fighting vehicles, came to the area with mounted machine guns and boomed through loudspeakers in Arabic. "Return to your homes. What you are doing is forbidden," the messages said. "Otherwise we will use force."
In Baghdad, 100 miles south, public solidarity with Saddam was nonexistent. One ragged man carried a placard aloft down Saddoun Street depicting the overthrown leader with horns and neck noose. "This is your birthday. Shame on you," it read.
Nearby, young men hawked photocopied sheets of the U.S. Central Command's "deck of cards" most-wanted figures, shouting to passing 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, 30, a carpenter. "We ask God that he never returns, because we are happy and -- God willing -- things will be better."
For days, Baghdad has been rife with rumors that Saddam planned to unleash unspecified violence upon the city to mark his birthday. There was no evidence that such a plan was afoot, and nothing had happened by nightfall.
"How can he do anything to hurt us now that we are free?" said Hussein al-Khafaji, an Iraqi air force colonel.
Some fretted nonetheless. On one city block in eastern Baghdad, many residents decided to stay home for the day, fearing reprisals by Saddam or his loyalists.
"Whenever we had those elections for president, everyone voted for him 100 percent," al-Khafaji said. "And today nothing will happen, and this will prove that none of us liked him, not a one."
In the northern city of Mosul, soldiers from the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division took down a freshly painted banner from the side of a building that read, in English: "Saddam Hussain is the glory."
And on the main road north out of the southern city of Basra, about 50 marchers appeared Monday 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 aflame.
"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 the regime of Saddam, who made sure power was held tightly by his Sunni Muslim cohorts.
Retired 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.