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Saddam to show strength of his iron grip

His son embarrassed him, but the Iraqi leader is still in control and aims to prove it at the polls, writes Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad
Uday Hussein split Iraq's ruling family two months ago when he opened fire with a submachine gun. The shots, fired at a party, badly wounded an uncle and prompted Uday's brothers-in-law and their wives, daughters of Saddam Hussein, to flee to Jordan. It was the biggest crisis for the government of President Saddam since defeat in the Gulf war in 1991.

The referendum tomorrow on President Saddam's leadership is directly related to the shooting by his son, and the flight of Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel, his sons-in-law, to Amman. It is the Iraqi leader's way of demonstrating to Iraqis and the world that his grip on power is as strong as ever. Outside the three Kurdish provinces in the north, eight million Iraqi voters will ritually endorse his rule.

The crisis has brought some changes. At the time he shot his uncle Watban - President Saddam's half-brother and the former interior minister - Uday Hussein had made himself virtual prime minister of Iraq, second only in power to his father. From a heavily protected yellow building on the east bank of the River Tigris, Uday ran much of the government and his own business enterprises. The building belongs to the Iraqi Olympic Committee, of which Uday is chairman.

Iraqi officials now say on the record that Uday will confine himself entirely to sport. Last week he was re-elected chairman of the Iraqi Football Association by 155 to nil.

Well-informed people in Baghdad tell stories of Uday's fall from grace, including one about how President Saddam, enraged by Uday splitting the family, personally visited the burning of his eldest son's collection of 60 cars.

Another rumour in Baghdad, which also cannot be checked for accuracy, says the Iraqi leader conducted a search of the Olympic Committee's headquarters. There, President Saddam supposedly discovered that the building contained a private jail maintained by Uday, and released three captives saying: ''Iraq cannot have a state within a state.''

Colourful details of Saddam Hussein's clampdown on his son may be disseminated in part by the regime itself. Lights still twinkle at night on every floor of the headquarters of the Olympic Committee. Watban, despite treatment by Cuban and Iraqi doctors, is likely to lose the leg hit by Uday's bullet. Uday may retain more influence than his father pretends. Ultimately, however, Iraq remains wholly under the control of Saddam Hussein.

He has survived the immediate crisis over the split in his family. At the same time Iraq's international isolation has never been more complete. Hopes that the Gulf war alliance would break up have proved false. King Hussein chose the moment of Hussein Kamel's defection to call for a change of regime in Baghdad. All the other states which border Iraq - Iran, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria - are hostile to Baghdad and there are no new allies in sight.

The report this week by Rolf Ekeus, the UN official in charge of monitoring the dismantling of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, says that Iraq is still concealing information and probably some of the arms. This was denounced as untrue by Iraqi officials yesterday. But it underlined how far Iraq is from the lifting of UN sanctions, first imposed in 1990.

There is no doubt that sanctions do serious damage. ''An average monthly salary buys just two chickens,'' said Viktor Wahlroos, deputy co-ordinator of UN relief operations in the country. ''A quarter of the children are suffering from malnutrition. The government ration meets 50 per cent of people's needs and they don't have the money to buy the other 50 per cent.''

There is no doubt that the urban poor and the professional middle classes are being badly hit. Neatly dressed Iraqis scrabble outside the Libyan embassy looking for jobs replacing the Palestinians and Sudanese who are being expelled. Antique dealers say that some of grandest houses in Baghdad are empty of furniture, which has been sold off to pay for food. An aid official bought two carpets, each worth $1,500, for $40 in Basra. The nouveaux riches in Baghdad are people who own agricultural land.

Iraq is still a long way from famine, however. ''The government must still have hard currency accounts abroad,'' a foreign diplomat said. "If they were really hard-pressed they would have accepted the UN offer of limited sales of oil to meet food needs. They will do that when they get really desperate.''

This may paint too favourable a picture of Iraq's position. There are few trucks on the road from Jordan and only 200 to 300 a day from Turkey. The food ration was cut last October. On the other hand the Iraqi government machinery is surprisingly efficient. Despite lack of tractors, fertiliser, pesticides and seeds, there is plenty of food in the shops, although it is expensive. Khalid Abdul Munam Rashid, the Agriculture Minister, said that because of the lack of machinery, ''we do more things manually, using eight people where we used to use two."

Control of the food supplies puts the government in a powerful position. It has other hidden strengths which explain why the embargo has had limited political and economic effect. Sanctions have no effect on transport or power supplies, because Iraq has limitless supplies of oil and refineries to turn it into fuel. ''I can fill the tank of my car for less than the equivalent of one US cent,'' said one driver. Electric power supply in Baghdad is uninterrupted. Food shortages create anger, but not total desperation. Security is too tight for a repeat of the uprisings of 1991. At the same time there is also no sign of Iraq breaking out of five years' political and economic siege.

The results of tomorrow's referendum are not in doubt. Many Iraqis believe that invisible numbers on the ballot will allow the government to identify ''No'' voters. ''He could get 99.9 per cent of the vote, so they may have to lower it to 95 per cent for credibility,'' said one person who intended to vote "Yes''.