Saddam fails to win 0.04% of vote

PATRICK COCKBURN

Baghdad

A pigeon accidentally shot by a supporter of Saddam Hussein lay flapping on the ground in the courtyard of a block of flats in central Baghdad. It had mis-timed its flight to coincide with the announcement that 99.96 per cent of the Iraqi people want Saddam to be their president for the next seven years.

Exactly 3,052 people, or one voter in 3,000, voted against President Saddam, of whom 2,463, were in Baghdad.

The block is largely inhabited by members of the ruling Baath party, who ran to their balconies to fire their sub-machine guns and pistols into the air in celebration. Children sang songs in praise of President Saddam and some of their parents tossed money into the air. This is not as expensive as it would have been a few years ago, since the Iraqi dinar has fallen from three to the US dollar to 2,000 today.

Throughout the referendum, in which 8 million Iraqis trooped to the polls, Saddam Hussein remained largely invisible. The pictures on Iraqi television showing him waving to enthusiastic crowds are about five years old. But there is a change in the way in which the presenters refer to him. When President Saddam's name is mentioned they now invariably add: "May God preserve him and protect him." Only the Prophet Mohamed traditionally receives such treatment.

Iraqis normally see their leader on the nightly news as he receives foreign dignitaries. But they are few and far between these days, and include people of dubious diplomatic significance.The only person of any notoriety to travel to Baghdad in the last few days has been Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian nationalist politician. His bizarre presence underlines Iraq's political isolation. He gave an interview to Iraqi television dressed up as an Arab sheikh and looking like an ageing Colonel Gaddafi. He saw Saddam Hussein for five hours, saying afterwards: "I talked for four of them." At the al-Rashid hotel, Mr Zhirinovsky's bodyguard angered other guests by ordering them out of the lift whenever the Russian delegation was using it.

There may have been a moment when President Saddam thought that the Gulf war coalition would break up. Russia and France would successfully oppose sanctions; Turkey would become restive about the loss of Iraqi trade. But if anything, the embargo is getting tighter. There are few trucks on the lifeline through Jordan, and Jordanian customs have got much tougher on smuggling.

At the same time, Iraq is not starving. There is malnutrition, but the government rationing system still works. The fields along the Tigris and the Euphrates are full of farmers, and there are more fruit and vegetables in the market than before sanctions. A kilo of figs costs about 18 pence but apples, which are grown beyond the Iraqi line in Kurdistan, cost seven times as much. "Apples are for the rich," said one shopper.

This may explain why Iraq has rejected the UN Security Council plan for a limited sale of Iraqi crude oil under the partial control of the UN. Diplomats here argue that this shows Iraq still has the hard currency in secret foreign accounts to pay for just enough food to get by.

There are few overt signs of resentment. The only one in recent weeks was a bomb under the car of a diplomat at the Russian embassy - he had gone into the embassy a few minutes earlier. Moscow used to be a firm ally of President Saddam, and although it has done little for him in the last five years, nobody in Baghdad knows why its embassy should have been singled out for attack.

Sunday's referendum proves nothing but that the government has administrative control, but it is no closer to breaking out of the political and economic siege than it was after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. A weak Iraq suits too many interests. Neither the US, Saudi Arabia nor Kuwait wants radical change in Baghdad, even if they want a new man at the top.

Ordinary Iraqis have a sense that they are at the mercy of events over which they have no control, and most are just scraping by. Open-air markets have developed in Baghdad as people buy and sell anything from furniture to piles of rags and broken plates. This makes it a more human city than at the height of the oil boom, but also a despairing one. The only real ambition that most Iraqis now have is to survive.

Leading article, page 18

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