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Freely or Not, Iraq Supports Saddam's Day

April 29, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGHDAD — His excellency, great uncle to all, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein celebrated turning 65 on Sunday, and his wish seemed to be for the U.S. to hear loud and clear that his people love him dearly.

Iraqis are edgy, especially since President Bush called their country part of an "axis of evil." They don't want any more bombing. And they chose their leader's birthday to pour into the streets--maybe not exactly spontaneously, but in any case in great volume--to say, in effect, "Back off."

Of course, it is hard to know in a land like Iraq what is really in people's hearts. Self-expression is not generally part of the landscape. But there was 11-year-old Lukman Abid pumping his fist in the air, marching in a crowd tens of thousands strong while chanting, "With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for Saddam Hussein."

There was also an entire boys elementary school, the students in neat red vests and crisp white shirts, marching and shouting: "Bush, Bush, hear very well! We love our Saddam Hussein!"

True, men in dark green military uniforms--members of Hussein's ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, each armed with a Kalashnikov rifle--lined the parade route, and snipers stared down from rooftops.

But whether the participants marched out of love or devotion, obligation or fear, the birthday bash Iraq threw for its president--or its president threw for Iraq--made at least one point very clear: After launching two disastrous wars, enduring the antipathy of the world and suffering through 12 years of crushing economic sanctions, Saddam Hussein still has a firm grip on his people and his country. He may not be stronger than ever, but he is strong enough.

There was another point being made as well: Iraqis feel that, perhaps for the first time in years, they have the upper hand in their diplomatic arm-wrestle with America. They believe that a combination of clever diplomacy and good luck has made it nearly impossible for the U.S. to strike them right now, and they plan to keep the pressure on. There is a sense here that Iraq will very soon move to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return, a key demand of the international community and one that would further undermine any American attack plans, they say.

"The regime is doing all it can to exploit the Palestinian crisis," said Saad Jawad, a political scientist and author. "They are trying to make it harder for America to attack. . . . They are trying to be diplomatic."

Hussein has not only held on to power since his military was driven from Kuwait in 1991--he has grown stronger. Analysts, diplomats and ordinary citizens here all say the West has helped him hold on, largely by keeping in place economic sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The idea behind the sanctions was to weaken the regime, and for a time, they did. But these days, when Iraqis can't get medicine, they don't blame their president. When they have to carry bagfuls of their devalued currency to pay for a small meal, they don't blame their president. When their electricity shuts off or sewage runs into their streets, they don't blame their president.

They blame America.

"I think they forgot who is responsible for all this," said one European diplomat here, who said the best way to oust Hussein might be to lift the sanctions. That, he said, would focus the spotlight back on the leadership and its decisions.

"Even me, I started to forget what is the cause, what is the real problem," said the diplomat, who has been based in Baghdad for several years. "I had to reorient myself."

Baghdad is a sprawling capital, very flat, very rundown. Sidewalks are crumbled. In some spots, goats pick through heaps of trash.

But this is not a city in decline. In fact, it feels like one on its way back up. New luxury cars cruise the streets. Stores are filled with everything from Gillette razors to Pentium-processor computers. Not everyone has the money to buy these goods. Most don't. But they take comfort in the merchandise being there, as another sign that their country has prevailed.

"We know very well it is the American evil which has been working against our country," said Whalid Sabir, 29, who runs a small nut shop in the capital. "The celebration of the birthday of the president is happiness for everyone. He is a symbol, a brave man who stood up against the evil will of America and Israel."

That's how most people here talk, as if they were quoting a poster--which they often are. "We are renewing our absolute loyalty for President Saddam Hussein," read one hand-lettered sign held high over the crowd at the birthday parade.

The national celebration, though an annual event, was designed this year to be one more element in a carefully crafted strategy aimed at insulating Iraq from the possibility of an American attack--and at preserving Hussein's hold on power. That is why Iraqi authorities invited Western journalists to cover the event.

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