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Leading Article; One tyrant, one vote

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq has never been a man noted for a highly developed sense of humour, but even he might be able to appreciate the ironies of the preposterous "referendum" which has just consecrated his rule by a "yes" vote of 99.96 per cent.

Here was a contest with one candidate in which many hapless voters were invited to mark their papers without the least privacy. Its outcome was celebrated with the intimidatory tattoo of Kalashnikov fire familiar at occasions of spontaneous public rejoicing in Baghdad. The result was hailed by Saddam's toadying deputy, Izzat Ibrahim, as "an immortal day in the history of Arabism and Islam".

As so often with Saddam, the outside world is left to shake its head and attempt to decipher his intentions. Could this have been an effort to persuade the more credulous or covetous members of the United Nations Security Council that his is a legitimate government upon whose shoulders the burden of UN sanctions unjustly rests? It cannot have purchased an iota of credibility for that assumption.

It seems more likely that this was the Iraqi leader's method of sending a signal to the Security Council. Sanctions have failed, he is saying, I can still muster more than 8 million people to cast votes, my control is absolute and my resolve firm. Therefore lift sanctions, for they are hurting the Iraqi people but cannot harm me.

There is a respectable liberal argument precisely to that effect. The sufferings of the Iraqi populace deserve every ounce of compassion. The UN itself has documented middle-class penury, malnutrition among the poor, lack of medicines for the sick. Iraq, once a standard-bearer of social development, is disintegrating into a pre-industrial country. But this tragedy stems from nothing more than the calculated actions of Saddam Hussein himself.

The Iraqi regime refuses to take up an option for UN-controlled oil sales that would yield $1bn in humanitarian funds. It spouts the propaganda of the oppressed yet it squanders scarce cash on its army and the sinister security services that preserve Saddam in power. Even more ominous,the Iraq that pleads poverty has engaged once again in a clandestine buying spree of missile components and hi-tech weapons parts. These are the actions of a government bent on violent retribution, not those of a humanitarian supplicant.

Perhaps the greatest service of Saddam's "referendum" is the helpful light it casts on the nature of his regime. When arguments are made on behalf of the Iraqi people, let it be recalled that this is a ruling clique that rules by violating the country's legal constitution. No elected parliament has existed in Iraq since 1958, and by 1968 the Baath party had abrogated all power to itself. There have been interludes of fake liberalisation in Baghdad before - 1988 to 1990 was one such period. It is all part of an intermittent effort to convert the Baathist heritage of "revolutionary legitimacy" into a governmental system able to claim allegiance from all Iraqis. And perhaps the greatest irony is that the Baath party's own title means "renaissance".