TIKRIT, Iraq – The tribal elders from Saddam Hussein (search)'s home region extended an invitation to U.S. soldiers for talks -- and told them townspeople are against "terrorists" throwing bombs but also don't like soldiers putting guns to men's heads during searches.
The freewheeling discussion between some 30 tribal leaders clad in traditional white robes and headscarves and American forces marked a renewed effort by coalition forces to win support from the elders in an area that has been a hotbed of anti-American resistance.
"Who could imagine that we could sit openly and talk like this, say what we think without threats?" Lt. Col. Steve Russell said. His 4th Infantry Division (search) troops have been hunting for Saddam supporters and Fedayeen (search) militants in the area and have come under constant attack from insurgent forces.
Joined by local religious leaders, the police chief and the town mayor, Thursday's meeting was organized by tribal sheiks in Salah Ad Din province to adopt a resolution denouncing anyone who attacked U.S. forces as a terrorist but also endorsing the "right to resist" the occupation.
"I am against terrorists and their attacks, but I am also against [American] soldiers putting guns to the heads of our men and trampling on our dignity," said town elder Mahmud Yasin, an arts professor at Tikrit University.
In turn, Russell reassured the group that he understood their sensitivities, but said that the guerrilla attacks should be rejected.
"I understand no one likes coalition forces being here. It is a matter of your national pride. We understand this. But armed resistance is completely unacceptable," he said.
He recalled recent incidents when Iraqis fell victims to insurgents: mortars fired Wednesday onto a soccer field, a grenade that injured a 2-year-old girl in a nearby street.
But several sheiks at the meeting claimed resistance was the legitimate right of every person in an occupied land. "The people have a right to fight for their country," one told the audience.
"We must distinguish between resistance and terrorist acts. Bombs in the city are not resistance. That is terrorist activity; it only kills innocent people," said Mayor Wail al-Ali, a former diplomat who has backed the troops since their arrival here.
The area around Tikrit, 120 miles north of Baghdad, has been the scene of increased attacks on U.S. troops that coalition forces blame on die-hard Saddam supporters. This region is part of the Sunni Triangle, once favored by Saddam, and stretches to the north and west of Baghdad.
American soldiers cordoned off Uja, the village where Saddam was born, suspecting this dusty farming community about six miles south of Tikrit of being a secret base for funding and planning assaults against coalition forces.
A fence of barbed wire was erected and checkpoints were set up at all roads leading into the village of about 3,500 residents, many of them Saddam's clansmen and distant relatives. All adults were required to register for identity cards that U.S. officials said would allow them "controlled access" in and out of the village.
Despite strong support for Saddam in this area, the American operation faced no visible resistance, and people lined up quietly outside a police station to register for ID cards.
The tribal declaration adopted the day before condemned terrorist acts, stressed support for Iraqi police and demanded a scaled-down U.S. troop presence show respect toward Iraqis. Tribal leaders urged the soldiers to reduce patrols in the area, saying it would be good for both sides.
"We don't want them [Americans] to leave. We ask the coalition troops to pull back, just to be on the outside and let our police provide security in our town," al-Ali said.
Russell told the sheiks that U.S. forces would only be able to withdraw if the two sides cooperated to achieve peace.
But townspeople were "deeply concerned" over the troops' manner of searching for suspects, the mayor told The Associated Press: the storming of homes, mostly at night, catching men with wives and children while sleeping.
"Please respect our houses. Do not enter without a court order and search," Al-Ali said.
The sheiks also objected to what some called a "return to the old ways of Saddam," with innocent people jailed without any proof, many of them detainees who are later released. Others raised alleged incidents of American soldiers entering "female schools" and allegedly using dogs in searches.
Russell said his troops do not use sniffer dogs. "We are infantry, we are not soldiers with dogs," he said.
The face-to-face meetings ended with some sheiks pledging their support for U.S. troops. "I will make sure my village is safe," said Sheik Musaleh Kuraim, whose son was killed while working as a translator for the military.
Russell said the meeting was a first step in true communication.
"What happened here today transcends tribal and religious backing that the old regime supporters may have here. The sheiks put down what they believe in. We hear their voice."