Iraqis cast votes under Saddam's watchful eye

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The Independent Online
Thirteen pictures of Saddam Hussein, dressed as an Arab sheikh, a baggy-trousered Kurd and a white-suited businessman, stared down on the 7,000 voters of the Arafa district of Kirkuk as they cast their ballots yesterday in the local primary school. A 14th picture of the Iraqi leader stood on the ballot box itself, into which voters pushed slips of paper on which they had ticked the "yes" or "no" box in answer to the question "Do you agree that Saddam Hussein should be the president of the Republic of Iraq?"

The sayings of the Iraqi leader adorned the walls of the school gymnasium. "Isn't that a beautiful thought?" said Mahmoud Faisi al-Haza, a teacher of English for 15 years, pointing to a slogan which read: "Tell the truth without flattery."

Seldom has an authoritarian state devoted such resources to the trappings of democracy. Eight million Iraqis should have gone to their local polling station yesterday, usually in a school, and cast a vote endorsing Saddam Hussein for another seven years. With a million votes counted last night, the President was said to have won 99.95 per cent of them. Just 52 "No" votes had been recorded.

The real aim behind the referendum is clear enough. Two months ago Uday Hussein, President Saddam's eldest son, opened fire with his sub-machine gun at a party in Baghdad, wounding his uncle, Watban, and forcing his military officer brothers-in-law, Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel, to flee to Jordan with their wives, the president's eldest daughters.

"People held private parties throughout Baghdad because they believed the regime was wobbling," said an Iraqi. The point of the referendum yesterday was to demonstrate that they were wrong.

In Kirkuk, a city of 400,000 three hours drive north-east of Baghdad, there is a slight undercurrent of tension. During the 1991 uprising Kurdish forces captured it, only to be driven out by the Iraqi army a few weeks later. Many of the Kurds in Kirkuk left and have not returned. "We are being chased out," said a Kurd from the city living in Baghdad.

There are few signs of the fighting visible today. Asked who were the majority in the city, Salem Mahmoud Kebabchi, one of the electoral officials in Kirkuk, at first said "Arabs". But he added after consultation with other officials: "It does not matter if people are Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans or Christians because all are Iraqis under the leadership of Saddam Hussein."

As the place where oil was first discovered in Iraq in 1927, Kirkuk is also the centre of the northern oil fields, of which the Kurds claim they have been deprived by systematic Arabisation of the province. In Kirkuk, the personality cult of Saddam Hussein is even more overwhelming than in Baghdad. In the Arapa Primary School, for instance, there is a board, in place before the election, on which schoolgirls have written love-letters and made birthday cards for the president. It faces a large mural of an Iraqi soldier beneath another quoting the leader: "Victory is sweet."