TIKRIT, Iraq — In the hometown of the late Saddam Hussein, arrests have become so commonplace that whenever a police car shows up, young men flee from the street.
It's a striking illustration of fortunes reversed by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 that overthrew the Sunni ascendancy and put the Shiite majority on top. Now, with the last American forces to leave Iraq by the end of the month, Sunnis like 57-year-old Jassim Mohammed are worried.
"The American departure represents a joyous event, but our concerns are about the time after the departure," the Tikrit schoolteacher said. "Absolutely, after the American withdrawal the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites will get worse and worse."
Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, has large homes, some three stories high with bougainvillea climbing their high walls, that attest to its former prominence as the power base of Saddam's Baath Party.
Graffiti serves as a reminder that even five years after Saddam was tried by an Iraqi court and hanged, he is still a hero to many. One scrawled message refers to the dictator who ruled Iraq with an iron fist as a martyr who lives in "honorable people's hearts."
He is buried in al-Aouja, a town about 10 miles (15 kilometers), south of here. The tomb, guarded by his relatives, is draped with the Saddam-era Iraqi flag. A Quran rests nearby. A collage of photos of Saddam, his family and relatives is assembled on a nearby wall.
Few visitors come. In the highly charged atmosphere of post-Saddam Iraq, Baathist is about the worst thing an Iraqi can be called. Lately tensions have risen with the arrest around the country of hundreds of former ex-Baathists, allegedly as security threats although no proof has been given.
Nationally, Shiites make up 60 to 65 percent of the population. But Tikrit's 115,000 residents are overwhelmingly Sunni, according to the mayor, Dr. Omar Tarek.
He estimates that half the adult men in Tikrit and the surrounding province of Salahuddin have spent time in U.S. or Iraqi prisons. At first the Sunnis waged an insurgency against the Americans, then became U.S. allies against al-Qaida, but relations with the Shiite-led national government are still frosty.
Tikrit residents hasten to say that everyday relations between Sunnis and Shiites are much better than they were at the height of the insurgency, when neighbors turned on neighbors and whole sections of Baghdad were expunged of one Muslim sect or the other. Sunnis and Shiites can travel throughout the country without fear of being shot at a checkpoint by a militia.
But an underlying tension persists.
In Tikrit there's a perception – right or wrong – that the national government treats the Sunnis, and especially people from Salahuddin, differently from Shiites.
"The government arrests only the Sunnis and the Baathists and ignores all other criminals or militiamen from the other sect," said Tamir Khalf Faleh, a Sunni who was an army officer under Saddam.
With the disbandment of the Iraqi military and Baath Party, many Sunnis became unemployable, especially in Tikrit and Salahuddin province. Dhamin al-Jabouri, a provincial councilor, put Salahuddin's unemployment at 40 percent and said that it rarely gets the big investment projects doled out by government departments.
"These ministries deliberately ignore Salahuddin," he said.
Ahmed al-Basrawi, one of Tikrit's few thousand Shiites, says that during the worst violence Sunni neighbors would sleep in his house to protect him. He doubted the U.S. departure would worsen relations. But he shared the Sunni belief that the government discriminated against the city and region.
"Every person who demands rights for Salahuddin province is deemed a Baathist by the government," he said.
Toward the end of the occupation, many Sunnis came to feel that the American military was treating them fairly, or at least was more fair than the Shiite-led government. They fear that the U.S. departure means the loss of a protector.
Although the mayor of Tikrit, appointed by the government two months ago, is Sunni, most other top provincial jobs, especially in security, don't go to Sunni Arabs. The head of the Iraqi Army division is Kurdish and his deputies are Shiite. The provincial police chief is a Shiite.
Ammar Youssif Hammoud, the Sunni head of the Salahuddin provincial council, said military forces "come from Baghdad to Salahuddin to raid and detain dignitaries without informing the local government."
Provincial councilors have grown so frustrated that last month they voted to form their own autonomous region. The Kurds run three autonomous provinces in the north and two Shiite provinces are pushing for autonomy in the south, but it's Salahuddin's move that has stirred the sharpest reaction. Many Shiite politicians warn it would split the nation.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Salahuddin would become a "safe haven" for the Baath Party.
Autonomy is unlikely to be granted, but meanwhile, more trouble is bubbling up at Tikrit's university, over news that 144 staffers are to be purged for allegedly having Baath connections. But the newly appointed college president, Dr. Mahir Saleh Allawi al-Jabouri, who is Sunni, denies the move is sectarian and says the staffers are still at their desks.
In Iraq, the Sunni-Shiite rift that has split Islam for about 1,300 years is exacerbated by continued violence – 21 Shiite pilgrims were killed by bombs during a recent religious procession – and a sense of injustice that leaves little room for compromise by either side.
The Sunnis feel they are being penalized simply for being Sunnis like Saddam. The Shiites feel that after more than three decades of suppression by the totalitarian Baathist creed, they need to be especially vigilant in stamping it out. Al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, is himself a former dissident who spent 24 years in exile and was sentenced to death by Saddam.
Today's divisions are often attributed to foreign interference. "The Sunni-Shiite issue was made in order to ... to sow sedition among Iraqis," said Dr. Amer al-Khuzaie, the prime minister's adviser on national reconciliation issues.
But on the streets of Tikrit, many Sunnis still believe the government views them through a sectarian lens.
"The central government will not change its policy after the American departure. It will keep on ... dealing with Sunnis and Salahuddin people as third-class people," said Marwan Jabbar, a 26-year-old shop owner.
"Our fundamental concern ahead of the U.S. military's departure is the fear of the unknown."
Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.