Nation & World 10/28/02 Saddam's charade
A make-believe referendum gives him seven more years. A few dare whisper 'No'
BY KEVIN WHITELAW
TIKRIT, IRAQSaddam Hussein threw a nationwide party for himself last week. Officially, it was a referendum on his rule. But, under the careful watch of government officials and security forces, the mood was at once celebratory and defiant. Here in Saddam's hometown, voters proudly displayed their ballots marked "Yes" for Saddam. One young woman even cut her finger with a razor blade to mark her ballot in blood. Children chanted and danced on cue for foreign television cameras; election officials served tea, dates, and candy. "Today is just like a wedding day," exulted one local teacher as he cast his vote.
In some ways, Saddam's cult of personality is reaching new levels in the face of American threats of war. His mustachioed visage, normally inescapable, is somehow even more ubiquitous. Even the telephone dial tone was changed for the referendum to a message praising Saddam. Iraqis' true feelings, though, are hard to gauge. Most people are too scared to speak openly, especially to journalists accompanied by government minders. But in surreptitious conversations here, several Iraqis insist there is an undercurrent of widespread unhappiness with Saddam. "Iraqis have two personalities, one with foreigners and one at home," says one man.
There are even rumblings of a nascent opposition. One Iraqi dissident from a prominent family, who agreed to speak to U.S. News secretly, says he has been in clandestine talks with more than 15 other large, influential families from all over Iraq. He claims they have been working for two months to shape a secret government that could take over from Saddam should he be ousted by the U.S. military. "The next president should be from Iraq," not from an opposition group outside the country, he says. "This idea is very important. People are very, very ready for a change."
Reign of fear. Such talk alone could bring a death sentence. The man who spoke with a reporter has already been to Iraqi jails three times for his opposition to the regime. For security reasons, the families never gather; instead, they meet one-on-one and pass messages through a chain of contacts. "We are very afraid," he says. "They would cut our throats. I am taking my own life in my hands." Paranoid about listening devices, this dissident bribes his neighbor so that he doesn't report him to the secret police.
Even Iraqi officials privately expressed some skepticism about the announced referendum result: among the 11.5 million votes, 100 percent choosing "Yes" to extending Saddam's 23 years of absolute power for seven more years. It's easy to dismiss the whole exercise as a charade, with the outcome announced long before the millions of paper ballots could possibly have been gathered and tallied. Still, much of the support for Saddam seems genuine, especially in Tikrit, home to many members of Saddam's inner circle. Iraqis are especially proud of Saddam for his support of the Palestinian cause, something he has promoted with millions of dollars given families of suicide bombers and wounded Palestinians. "Now Saddam Hussein represents a new phenomenona hero of the Arab nation," says Marwan Ibrahim, a businessman in Tikrit. "I am quite sure that Saddam would win if he was in a referendum in any Arab country."
Bush administration officials have spoken optimistically about their expectations that Iraqis would welcome United States military forces "liberating" the country from Saddam's grip. But whatever the extent of opposition to Saddam, there is still growing resentment of the United States. Many Iraqis express bafflement at America's motivations, asking to see proof of President Bush's claim that Iraq is building weapons of mass destruction. "People are very disappointed by the West right now," says one United Nations official in Baghdad.
It is the economic sanctions, which have been in place for 12 years, that anger people the most. Millions of middle-class Iraqis have been thrown into poverty, while schools and hospitals lack crucial supplies (though Saddam and his cronies have enriched themselves through oil smuggling and other dealings). The director of Saddam Teaching Hospital burst into tears talking about children suffering from malnutrition and high rates of leukemia, which he blames on the aftereffects of American bombing. The sanctions, he says, have blocked the kind of equipment he needs to treat his patients properly. Rural farmers outside Tikrit, meanwhile, also blame U.S. bombing for a rash of diseases afflicting crops and farm animals.
In the past several years, as Iraq has slowly wriggled out of the once tight United Nations sanctions regime, aspects of life have improved. Electricity, once dangerously erratic in the sweltering summers, is more regular in the large cities. Using spare parts and local ingenuity, the government has patched the road, water, and sewage systems. Now, with the threat of war, the fragile infrastructure is at risk. "We are now afraid that we are going to have to start all over again," frets one Iraqi businessman.
War jitters. It took quite a while to begin recovering from the Gulf War. Business had been mostly stagnant from 1991 until a few years ago, when many new businesses began thriving. Luxury goods began to flood into Baghdad. But in the wake of September 11, everything started to dry up. It's been even worse in the past three months, as war rhetoric in Washington has increased. "Nowadays, it's the worst we have ever experienced," says Faris el-Hadi, the Iraqi dealer for the electronics maker Samsung and several Western companies. "People want to keep their money in their pockets in case there is a war." The agony of waiting for a possible war, many agree, is almost worse than war itself. "You will lose the peace if you launch a war," says Abdul Sattar Jawad, an English professor at Baghdad University. "Hostility toward America is growing every day."
But even the attitudes toward America are complex. People routinely condemn the Bush administration, but American popular culture remains well liked. A famous Saddam portrait artist has painted a scene from Titanic on his wall, right next to one of Saddam. A Baghdad video store, which sports a poster of Britney Spears, stocks the latest Americans films like XXX and Austin Powers in Goldmember. More than half of the video CDs it rents or sells are American titles. "We see your films, and we know about the American people," says Abdul Salam Qaddory, an engineer in Baghdad who loves cowboy films and Steven Spielberg. "But the Americans do not know anything about the Iraqi people. I am not an enemy of the American people, but I am an enemy of Bush."
After a decade of isolation, Iraq is again becoming more exposed to the rest of the world, including the United States. A new satellite television service includes the VH1 music channel, the Discovery Channel, and an American film channel (but no international news). The Internet has spread like wildfire, with dozens of government-run cafes around the country. Some sites are blocked and E-mail is carefully monitored, but Iraqis use popular search engines like Yahoo! or Google to reconnect with the outside world, including many U.S. sites on film, music, and fashion.
Most Iraqis insist that the success of this cultural invasion does not suggest an American military invasion will be greeted warmly. "The Iraqi youth like American music and wear American jeans and T-shirts. They listen to the Voice of America and read your literature," says Jawad, the English professor. "But they are Iraqis, and they love their country."