Manal Badr voted for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein Tuesday with more than her ballot she sealed her loyalty with her blood.
"We are free because we love our president," said the round-faced education student at a chaotic, crowded polling station in Tikrit, the city closest to the village where Mr. Hussein was born.
Ms. Badr proudly displayed the pin she used to prick her left thumb before daubing the "yes" box on the ballot, which asks: "Do you agree that Saddam Hussein should fulfill the post of president of Iraq?"
Blood vows and well-practiced cries of allegiance were the order of the day Tuesday as journalists and foreign dignitaries were escorted by Iraq's Ministry of Information to polling centers around the country.
Poll results weren't available at press time, but were hardly in doubt. At the last vote of this kind in 1995, Hussein received 99.96 percent of the votes.
This referendum, say officials here, is as much about rejecting American plans to attack Iraq, as it is about affirming support for their leader. "[George] Bush is a terrorist and a warmonger, because he attacks Iraq and other Arab countries," says Badr, adhering to a well-known line.
The tone was the same at several polling stations visited by two bus loads of Western journalists in Tikrit with its date palm fronds, luxury presidential palace buildings along the Tigris River, and ring of plainly visible surface-to-air missile batteries.
This region is the seat of Saddam's power. Many of his top ministers come from his clan.
Saddam was born in the village of Ouja, and it is here in this city 100 miles north of Baghdad that the biggest celebrations take place every April 28 to mark the event that has changed Iraq's history. At the gates of the city, visitors are greeted by a large portrait of Hussein. A few feet to the left, a fountain with splashing water a symbol of power and wealth throughout the parched Middle East marks the leader's home turf.
The name Saddam means "he who confronts." While Iraqis sometimes will privately express dislike for his leadership, there was little deviation from the official line in Tikrit or elsewhere in Iraq yesterday.
Crowds of voters danced and chanted pro-Hussein slogans, energized at the approach of foreign journalists. A festive atmosphere permeated the official proceedings. Many voting stations were set up like traditional wedding celebrations, with colorful carpets and tents lined with rows of plastic chairs for postvoting pontificating.
"We consider this day a war against America," declared Hamza Ali, a Baath Party official in al-Dawr, a desert town south of Tikrit. "America and England are the enemies of Iraq. We are steady with Saddam against these enemies."
In southern Iraq, a region where Shiite Muslims staged an unsuccessful rebellion in 1991, the public mood was similar.
Tell it to the judge
At an elementary school on the dusty outskirts of Najaf, a city of perhaps a million people, a judge of the local court presided over the polling. A poster of Hussein was propped on a chair in front of a single, chest-high ballot box. Colorful paper garlands and a banner extolling Hussein adorned the walls.
The judge, a stern-voiced man in a dark brown suit, made his sympathies clear to the gathering of journalists, international observers, and Iraqi voters. "The past, present, and future of Iraq are united with Hussein," he affirmed, but he declined to give his name.
The voting took place with no privacy, as no booths were available. Most voters didn't bother to fold their ballot papers as they slipped them into the box, leaving their marks in support of Hussein visible to the judge and other official observers.
Speaking over chants of support for the president, the judge observed: "All the people, even sick people from hospitals, have come to say 'yes' to Saddam Hussein."
At one point, a young man in a wheelchair is pushed forward. The crowd parted around him, and he reached up to cast his ballot. Ahmed Ghazali said it was the first time he has exercised his franchise.
"I came to reelect the president as president," Mr. Ghazali explained. "[Hussein] maintains Iraq's unity, he keeps Iraq stable, and he's a good man," he explains, an arm resting on the handcrank of his wheelchair. "I wish more leaders were like Saddam Hussein."
Even when two reporters got a few minutes alone at a Najaf market, there was no break in the official line. "Bush bad. Bush bad," said one man walking away and shaking his head when asked to comment.
In front of a rural agricultural college outside Najaf, the mood was celebratory. Animal innards lay on the asphalt, the aftermath of the slaughter of 40 sheep for the lunch and dinner for many of the area's electorate. Huge pots cooked over open fires.
Iraqis milled around, listening to a man with a loudspeaker decry US support for Israel. From time to time, someone raised a chant in favor of Hussein or against America. The region's governor stopped by for a visit.
The voters made their way toward the college's gymnasium, which served as the polling station. A hallway at the entrance, some 30 feet long, contained 29 images of Hussein posters, stickers, and Xeroxed sheets with slogans. One said: "We put our hearts into the ballot box."
Standing in line waiting to cast his ballot, a middle-aged Arabic teacher named Fadhil Abu Nouf raised his voice for the president. In booming tones, he began the chant: "Yes, yes, yes to our leader Saddam Hussein."
The other voters quickly joined him, pumping their arms in the air, their words reverberating in the cavernous gymnasium. "He's our leader and the president," Mr. Abu Nouf said a minute later. "He makes us live honorably among our enemies." Those enemies, he adds, are the US and its allies. He is certain they will attack Iraq. "All Iraqis, men and women, are ready to defend the country."
His vote is both an expression for support for Hussein and an act of defiance in a nation that feels itself under threat. "We came here to challenge the US," he said.