Projecting defiance and unity, Iraqis vote Tuesday

As US pressure bears down on Iraq, its leader stages a pageant of national support.

The dozens of photographs hanging in a Baghdad school constitute a curious family album. Shot over a 20-year period, the images reverently show Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with children – receiving their gifts, embracing them with smiling hugs, doting over infants, and dispensing presidential kisses with the apparent aplomb of a king.

The photos are meant to deepen the mystique and personality cult of Mr. Hussein – and even to win him votes in Tuesday's referendum to add seven years to his term.

The result is not in doubt: Iraqis vote "yes" or "no" on ballot papers. Hussein is the only candidate. And after the last vote, in 1995, the official "yes" tally was 99.96 percent.

While the US dismisses this poll as a sham, analysts say Hussein is using it to send two messages: to signal to the United States that Iraqis are unified against the Americans, and to remind Iraqis that Hussein's government is as strong as ever.

"It's not about 99.8 or 99.9 percent – it's about showing [Hussein's] people and the world that he is in control," says Volker Perthes, a Mideast expert with the Foundation for Science and Politics, an independent advisory body to the German government.

As Iraq faces the prospect of war with the United States aimed at ending Hussein's rule, such support appears to run more deeply among those who have been close to Iraq's leader, and could have most to lose if he were toppled.

"I hope God will give me long life, so I can photograph [Hussein] more," says Hussein Muhamed Ali, who took the collection of photos of Hussein with the children now on display. He has worked as an official photographer since 1970. The vote, he says, is a "day of challenge to the aggressive [American] people. We say 'yes,' not only on paper – we write it in blood, with all the feelings of the heart."

The last referendum was organized shortly after the defection to Jordan of Hussein's two sons-in-law, who revealed new details about Iraq's proscribed program of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Mr. Perthes says. The purpose of Tuesday's vote is the same as it was then.

"People outside and inside Iraq were wondering if the power of Saddam would gradually break down," Perthes says. "The referendum shows that state and regime power is present in any village. That is the message."

Against a steady drumbeat of war coming from Washington – where both houses of Congress last week voted to support President George Bush in any war to topple the Iraqi leader – Iraq is trying to forestall a tough new UN resolution that will begin open debate in the Security Council on Wednesday.

US officials are trying to incorporate a trigger for war in the resolution, if Iraq does not fully comply with aggressive, unfettered inspections. Baghdad has said repeatedly that it no longer has WMD programs, and wants compliance to yield an end of 12 years of sanctions.

While many in Washington believe that opposition to Hussein would translate into support for any US invading force, Iraqis caution that the brutal realities of sanctions – which most Iraqis blame on America – and the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children have turned Iraqis against the US.

"You might find people here who oppose the government, who might want changes, but the majority of people think the US is trying to destroy Iraq, and do not see the US as liberators," says Saad Naji Jawad, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad. "If change comes from outside, it will not be digestible to Iraqis. No patriot in the world would accept a foreign government to rule him."

If anything, the possibility of war seems to have ensured plenty of overtime work for the artists who paint the ubiquitous portraits of Hussein that wallpaper Baghdad, and for the sculptors who shape their leader's likeness, with arm raised, to lord over the Tigris River bridges and the capital's central squares.

Popular defiance is also manifest in at least one official sign-painting session, in which Iraqis gave their blood to be used as paint. The pro-Saddam banners vow "yes, a million times."

Schoolchildren at official functions wear pink hearts made of construction paper pinned to their pinafores, which read "Yes, Yes, Saddam Hussein." The common chant – of every child here for a generation – is "Our blood, our spirit, we sacrifice for Saddam."

"It is our country – why do [the Americans] cross seas and oceans to come to us? Why are they coming to hit us?" asks Abdullah, a Baghdad laborer, with large, worn toes protruding from his sandals, who spoke in the presence of an official information ministry guide. "There is no difference between us and the government – we have the right to chose the government. We want our leader, we love him – we'll never change."

While that sentiment echoes publicly across Baghdad, European diplomats say that voters do have a choice and will be free to say no, but that, politically, they "can't afford" not to vote yes.

Such thoughts don't cloud the view of true believers like photographer Ali, however. He says he has been "proud and honored" to have been in the presence of Hussein. With children, Hussein "has the manner of a father and educator who loves them."

"The proof is in the photographs," Ali adds, stroking his wide, razor-thin moustache. But how is the president coping with the possibility of renewed war with the US, in which overthrow is the American aim?

"Of course he is always confident, he never has been worried, he is a brave man," Ali says. "He knows he is right, and that his faith in Iraq and the Iraqi people is stronger than his enemies."

A packed flight to Iraq

The Jordanian businessman, squeezed next to me Sunday night on a crowded flight from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, seems to have no doubt that the US would soon make war against Iraq. "The plans are already in the drawer," he says, his face creased with worry.

A little past middle age, wearing an elegant olive sportscoat and taupe trousers, the man has been visiting Iraq since the early 1980s. These days he is selling the generic version of Crisco to the Iraqi government.

Flights to Baghdad are normally full, he says, mainly with businesspeople involved in similar ventures, which are allowed under the UN's oil-for-food program. Sunday's flight is especially packed – this time with journalists invited to cover a referendum on President Saddam Hussein's rule, set for Oct. 15.

I ask him what he would write about in these belligerent times. "The feelings of the people," he replies, urging me to do whatever I can to meet ordinary Iraqis. "They don't want this bloody war."

Does that mean they want the status quo – a continuation of Mr. Hussein's rule? In Iraq, he replies, "You can't change anything. The decision is only for one man." It is clear he means Hussein. The businessman has already told me that Iraqis will be unable to speak "politically," but adds that I would discern what people are really saying.

In the silences between his words lies something profoundly true about Iraq. Repressed by a leader who has tolerated no dissent for decades, most Iraqis probably do want change. But they also dread the sort of change the US appears to want.

The man doesn't want to say anything more. He doesn't reciprocate when I give him a business card. As we disembark, we don't say goodbye.

– Cameron W. Barr

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