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DEBATE ON IRAQ

It's Unanimous: Everyone Votes to Keep Hussein

Iraqi official says the referendum should send an unmistakable message to Washington.

October 17, 2002|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- Every one of Iraq's 11,445,636 eligible voters turned out for a national referendum this week and every one of them voted in favor of keeping Saddam Hussein as president, Iraqi officials said Wednesday.

The results were announced at a news conference in a government hall by Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. The redheaded, longtime ally of Hussein did not bristle at the suggestion that a 100% tally might not be perceived by everyone in the international community as credible. Instead, he smiled.

"Someone who does not know the Iraqi people, he does not believe this percentage. But it is real," Ibrahim said. "Whether it looks that way to someone or not, we don't have opposition in Iraq."

The victory claim, which bested Iraqi insistence seven years ago during the last referendum that only 0.04% of voters then opposed Hussein's rule, was particularly audacious as it came on a day the United Nations met to debate how to force Iraq to surrender any weapons of mass destruction it might possess.

In Washington, the White House had discounted the Iraqi vote Tuesday when it was held. "Obviously, it's not a very serious day, not a very serious vote and nobody places any credibility on it," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told Associated Press.

Voters were asked Tuesday to participate in the second referendum on Iraq's leadership. Hussein, 65, has been president since 1979. He rules by decree and by fear, and when Ibrahim says there is no opposition, he is right that none has been permitted. But even this authoritarian regime has tried to dress itself up with a veneer of democracy in hopes of earning a greater degree of legitimacy here and abroad.

Though Ibrahim insisted that the voting was not aimed at trying to prove anything to the United States, he did say the message should be unmistakable.

"If there is an aggression, the United States will have to face these people who said 'yes' to Saddam Hussein," he said. "If they come, we will fight them in every village and every house. Every house will be a front, and every Iraqi will have a role in the war."

But a European diplomat here who requested anonymity saw a far different message aimed at the U.S. and the world. "The message was, 'Look, we are still able to control all the population, and if you think it will be easy to control, you might be wrong,' " he said.

The first referendum confirming Hussein for a seven-year term as president took place in 1995, when he claimed a victory of 99.96%.

This time, at least one European diplomat based here had placed a bet with a colleague that Hussein would receive a more credible figure. The diplomat said the regime's recent diplomatic maneuvers in the high-stakes game with the U.S. had been very smart and he calculated that the same thinking would extend to the vote.

"I made a bet saying the regime will be clever and the final result will not be 97% but will be 75 to 80%," said the diplomat, who requested anonymity and did not disclose how much he will have to pay out.

With only one candidate on the referendum, there was little doubt about the results. Still, Ibrahim said, "This is a unique manifestation of democracy which is superior to all other forms of democracy."

Another European diplomat based here said the country, and the regime in particular, is so isolated that it has begun to believe its own propaganda. "The logic here is sometimes so difficult to understand," the diplomat said. "They start believing in it."

The lead-up to Tuesday's vote had the feel of a great national celebration, and the authorities declared Wednesday a national holiday even before the votes were fully counted.

Thousands of foreigners were flown in and put up at government expense. The city, always decorated with murals, mosaics and statues of the president, had even more posters, pictures and displays in Hussein's honor. The scene at polling places was frenzied, at least while foreign journalists were present, with some people going so far as to mark their ballots with their own blood.

The vote, which was all done on hand-marked paper ballots, was somehow tallied overnight.

Even before the announcement was made, the celebration began. Fifteen sheep were slaughtered in the driveway outside the Al Rashid Hotel. As the staff washed away the blood, the meat was taken inside and prepared for the guests. Gunfire echoed across the city as people fired weapons into the air.

And at the news conference, Ibrahim, dressed in a suit instead of his customary green military uniform and beret, read a lengthy speech illustrating the depth of Iraqis' adulation of the president.

His remarks portrayed the president as a leader for all ages, a man who will take his place in history alongside such admired figures as Saladin, the Kurdish fighter born in Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century.

"You have chosen a historic leader who acquired all the qualities of leadership defined by our forefathers," Ibrahim said in his statement. "These are qualities God sought to have imbued in their leader.

"You have chosen the wise man of the Arabs and one of the great leaders who cannot be replaced by anybody," he added. "Let his enemies be cornered. They are condemned by God."

The president did not make any appearance.

*

(A1) IRAQI MANDATE:

Democracy is alive and well in Iraq, or so government officials sought to demonstrate Wednesday as they released official referendum results.

For Hussein: 11,445,636

Against: 0

Turnout: 100%

See Story, A11

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