BAGHDAD, IRAQ — IT could be the understatement of the decade.
Saddam Hussein, speaking to Iraq's National Assembly Tuesday, said it had not been necessary to employ a public relations firm to help his campaign to earn a 99.96 percent "yes" vote in Sunday's referendum on his rule.
The entire state machinery was mobilized to ensure a massive yes vote to endorse him. And the linking of voter registration to food rationing left no doubt in the minds of frightened Iraqis how they should vote.
Yet the vote did serve to consolidate Saddam's control of this increasingly isolated and embargo-battered country, diplomats here say.
Recovering from top-level defections and bitter family feuds, Saddam has moved to contain the family divisions, rehabilitate the moribund ruling Baath Party, and tightened hands-on control of the key elements of the armed forces, such as the elite Republican Guard.
The referendum sent a message to any would-be challengers to Saddam inside the country and could have begun his rehabilitation in the region. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have already appealed for the United Nations embargo against Iraq to be lifted.
"After the earthquake of the defections, the regime has been stabilized politically," says a European diplomat here.
Weak family base
The diplomat says Saddam achieved this remarkable turnaround by reducing his reliance on a narrow and crumbling family base. He has broadened his support by restoring the position of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the highest decisionmaking body in the Iraqi government, and the Arab Baath Socialist Party.
The referendum also boosted his support among an Iraqi public more concerned with its physical survival than the shortcomings and international image of its leader. "From here on Saddam will be more dependent on the armed forces, the security apparatus, and the Baath Party, and less dependent on the feuding family," the diplomat says.
"His power base had become too narrow - it was tantamount to family rule, and that made him very vulnerable when rivalry erupted into the open," he adds.
Iraqi officials have made an effort to play down the role of the family in governing Iraq, and to scotch rumors of a succession struggle involving his three downgraded half-brothers, his ambitious and flamboyant son Udai, and his son-in-law, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hussan.
He defected to Jordan in August with his brother and Saddam's daughters, Raghad and Rana.
"Saddam has a family, but we don't have a ruling family," said Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. "The president rules Iraq with the help of the RCC and the [ruling Arab Baath] Party," Mr. Aziz said.
"The real force behind the president is the party and the people who vote in Sunday's referendum," Aziz said.
He stressed the president's two sons - Udai and Qusay - held no positions of formal power and did not sit on the RCC, the country's highest decisionmaking body.
Aziz pointed out that in recent months, Saddam had dismissed a cousin, Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, as defense minister and a half-brother, Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, an interior minister without any adverse effect on the regime.
There are also clear signs that Saddam has clipped the wings of his highly ambitious and controversial son, Udai, following the defection of General Hussein Kamel.
The usually high-profile Udai, whose involvement in family shootouts and high living are legend here, has hardly been mentioned in the tightly controlled Iraqi press since Aug. 8.
Despite retaining his position as chairman of the National Olympic Committee, he has ceased traveling abroad with touring Iraqi sports teams, diplomats say.
According to an account by an Arab journalist who interviewed him last month, Udai was under strict instructions not to answer any political questions.
During the referendum, which saw the largest influx of foreign journalists since the fall of the monarchy in 1958, Udai was kept in virtual quarantine, apart from being photographed watching a soccer match.
The man to watch
Qusay, the president's younger son, who has maintained a much lower public profile, heads the influential special security apparatus, which watches over four key state intelligence bodies.
"In the event of any confrontation, Qusay will be much more influential than Udai," says a second European diplomat based in Baghdad.
Both diplomats rule out a popular uprising in Iraq in the near future. The second diplomat says he discerns a tentative move toward opening the regime as witnessed by the presence of about 500 foreign journalists in Baghdad to cover the referendum. "But to dismiss the referendum as a sham would be missing the point. It was well-planned and organized. And the result shows that there is no visible opposition to Saddam in the country," the second diplomat says.
Yet disaffection within the security apparatus could lead to the eventual overthrow of Saddam.
"After the defections, he will never be able to exercise as tight a control as he did in the past. But it will be a gradual process. It is only the sovereign forces within Iraqi society that can bring about change. In the meantime, it's business as usual," the first diplomat said.