Refrains of support in Iraq

SUN JOURNAL

Election: Voters at four polling places feverishly express their devotion to Saddam Hussein.

October 16, 2002|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TIKRIT, Iraq - Mohammed Khalid has to shout to make himself heard above the chanting voters as he describes this city, the hometown of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"It is a very quiet city. Quiet, serious, kind," says Khalid, a high school English teacher, as men and women chant, and chant, preparing to cast their ballots in the country's presidential referendum yesterday. "Our people love each other. They help each other."

Tikrit, according to residents' descriptions on the day when citizens were asked to vote "yes" or "no" to Hussein's staying in office another seven years, is akin to paradise. Everyone in Tikrit is happy, they suggested. Everyone is generous and good-hearted, but no one more so than the president. His many relatives here are humble and polite.

About 100 miles north of Baghdad, paradise is low, sandy and bleached almost white by the sun. High walls with guard towers surround an enormous complex of modern palaces. Though no one wished even to say the name of the neighborhood, the palaces presumably belong to Hussein or members of his family.

Tikrit has served as a recruiting center for the government's elite military units, the Republican Guards, and military bases are nearby. But despite the attention Hussein has showered on the town, substantial parts of it remain as modest in scale and visible comfort as the agricultural villages nearby. A herd of sheep is not out of place in Tikrit.

The town came alive when foreign reporters arrived by bus at the Tikrit Developmental School for Girls on an election day visit arranged by the government. Ready to cast their votes in the referendum, men and women pushed and shoved to reach the ballot box as if the act of voting was to enter a contest for a prize so wonderful, so nearly perfect and wholly desirable, that it justified any amount of frenzy, even in paradise.

One brief question was on each paper ballot, printed in small type, "Do you agree to make Saddam Hussein president of Iraq?"

"Yes! Yes! Saddam Hussein!" people shouted. They danced and crowded more tightly into a hallway at the school. When the photographers and video crews were ready, men unfolded their secret ballots to show that they had checked "yes" before dropping them through the slot.

"Yes! Yes!" came the shouts, even louder. "Saddam Hussein!" Boys handed out decals with Hussein's image and wore T-shirts with his photo and a campaign slogan, "What Saddam says, Iraq says."

And so it was - the referendum was a serious occasion for people to say what the regime wanted to hear, that Hussein was unchallenged as the country's leader. What Hussein said and did, Iraqis in public chose to say and follow.

At the four polling places reporters visited in and near Tikrit, the activities were the same. In Tikrit, the wildly enthusiastic voters were townspeople. A few miles north, in the village of el-Dawr, past a battery of anti-aircraft rockets, the no less enthusiastic voters were wheat and vegetable farmers. A man pressed a thumbprint onto his ballot, marking the "yes" box as publicly as he could manage. Not to be outdone, a woman pricked her finger to mark the "yes" box with blood - such was her support for her president.

About 20 miles farther north, on a plain that was baked dry, tribesmen in spotless white robes and red-checked kaffiyehs waited under a tent erected for the occasion to talk about their fealty to Hussein. The chant was the same - "Yes! Yes! Saddam Hussein!"

"Our president provided us with water and houses, and he provided us with our school," said Sheikh Hajam Halaf Adabeya. "And electricity. And our roads. Before it was just dust and earth." And all that was true, a reflection of Hussein having adroitly cultivated the support of traditional tribes in a society where families, clan and tribes again define who people are.

"Yes! Yes!" the tribesmen said as the bus pulled away.

"Yes! Yes!" said some 100 schoolchildren outside a school in the village of al-Touz, on the edge of the Kurdish north. As elsewhere, a master of ceremonies shouted the slogans into a microphone, and the crowd outside the polling place shouted with him.

It was the heart of the afternoon, when the heat was cresting and everyone would normally be indoors for tea or a nap. Women in black chadors held the hands of girls in red party dresses, and shouted one more time:

"Yes! Yes!"

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