The people of Iraq rallied behind President Saddam Hussein on Sunday, from the teeming metropolis of Baghdad to this cradle of ancient civilization, casting yes-or-no ballots in a surreal referendum designed to give the strongman seven more years in power.
It wasn't exactly, as the government contended, an exercise in democracy, although it did mark the first time Iraqis have been asked to vote for the man who has held power by force for the past 27 years, 16 as president.
But the take-him-or-leave-him referendum, whose outcome was never in doubt, was seen by many in Iraq as a way to protest five years of United Nations sanctions by showing support for their leader.
Iraqis crowded into thousands of crude polling stations to vote, placing their palm-sized ballots in tall white boxes. Many stayed throughout the day, feasting on food from local tribal leaders and chanting "Yes, yes for Saddam Hussein" under the hot sun.
As the polls closed, Hussein backers took to the streets, waving banners of support for the president. In downtown Baghdad, the sounds of singing, drum rolls and trumpet music mixed with the mosques' sonorous calls to prayer in the clear night air on both sides of the Tigris River. The sky was filled with tracer bullets fired by celebrants. Even before the results were announced, victory parades already were scheduled for today.
"Saddam Hussein must be the leader of Iraq," said Dhya Hamandi, a 47-year-old pediatrician who voted in the dilapidated gymnasium of the Babylon Sports Center, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. "He is our teacher. Our helper. Our leader. All the nation is with Saddam Hussein."
Hamandi spoke after emerging from one of a group of voting booths made from four threadbare pool tables turned on their sides. He held three ballots--one each for him, his wife and their 18-year-old daughter--and they all had check marks in the yes box.
Next to Hamandi, Hamsa Naji, a 40-year-old farmer, shouted at several American reporters. "Let me ask you: Why does the American government have these sanctions?" he said. "We have no drink, no food, no clothes and no medicine. Our children are dying from these sanctions."
As the reporters scribbled notes, Mozahir Jaffa, a law professor at Babylon University and the local polling supervisor, asked in disbelief, "Can you really write that in your American newspapers?"
Although the vote count hadn't been completed by late Sunday, an overwhelming yes vote and a high turnout were certain. Many opponents of the regime now live in exile, and opponents inside the country said they were afraid to vote no, fearing retaliation from the government.
In the days preceding the election, not one of this country's 7.5 million registered voters dared, either in the newspapers or on television, to publicly advocate a no vote.
In its opinion poll on the election, the government-run daily newspaper in Baghdad didn't even bother to ask how voters planned to cast their ballots. Instead, it asked people only why they planned to vote for Hussein. (Opinion was divided evenly among those who consider him a symbol of the country, those who love him and those who cited his leadership qualities.)
Refusing to cast a ballot was not really an option for Hussein's opponents either. Although it appeared that ballot secrecy was being respected Sunday, each polling station had a list of voters and their birth dates. And many worried that the government might harass citizens who declined to vote or, worse, might take away the food ration cards that are the keys to survival in Iraq these days.
"I must vote," said a Baghdad nursery school teacher. Asked why, she replied: "Please don't ask. You know why."
Hussein does have significant support in Iraq. And the U.N. sanctions--which were imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and have sharply curtailed its oil sales and prohibited the import of anything but food, medicine and other humanitarian goods--have solidified that support. Many Iraqis hold the United States, not Hussein, responsible for the sanctions.
"Saddam Hussein is not just a nominee," said Hamid Youssef Hammadi, the Iraqi information minister. "Saddam Hussein is a national hero. America had Abraham Lincoln, France had Napoleon and De Gaulle, and Egypt had Nasser. In America, you may not like Saddam, but he is a hero here."
Even if the referendum doesn't convince many in the West of that, it is certain to feed Hussein's brazen personality cult. Nowhere is that more visible than in Babylon, where the Iraqi leader is cast as the modern-day equivalent of King Nebuchadnezzar, the warrior and builder who came to power in 605 BC at the tender age of 25.
Hussein, who helped stage a coup at age 31, has restored part of Nebuchadnezzar's 600-room palace. Placed atop some of the original bricks, marked with Nebuchadnezzar's name, are others that declare, "In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt the Royal Palace."
"Nebuchadnezzar was a man of war and peace, just as Saddam Hussein is," said Hadi Kader, a 40-year-old palace tour guide who cast his vote for Hussein in the referendum. "That's why people love him."
Diplomats in Baghdad said the referendum appeared to be an attempt by Hussein to restore his international credibility, which has been severely damaged by the defection of one of his close aides and subsequent admissions by Iraq that, at the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it had a biological and chemical weapons industry.
Iraqi officials say they do not expect the referendum to change world opinion about Hussein. They contend that it merely marks a resumption of democratic political reforms approved in the late 1980s but postponed by the Gulf War.
In the next two years, these officials say, Iraq will remove power from the Revolutionary Command Council and vest it in a two-chamber Parliament, which will elect a prime minister. The government also promises multi-party elections and says Hussein could be challenged.
But, until 2002, Saddam Hussein will be legally in power.