A total endorsement

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

The people of Iraq are steadfastly behind President Saddam Hussein in his resistance to U.S. belligerence, if the overwhelming mandate for him in the presidential referendum is any indication.

WHILE the George W. Bush administration was beating the drums of war, the people of Iraq were calmly voting in a nationwide referendum on October 15 to give President Saddam Hussein another seven years in office. The referendum was mandated by the Iraqi Constitution; the President has to seek a renewed mandate every seven years. The first referendum was held in October 1995 after the law on referendum was passed. The Western media and governments have portrayed the referendum as a hurried propaganda exercise by the Iraqi regime.

Meanwhile, Izzat Ibrahim, the Vice-Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and the seniormost official in the Iraqi administration after the President, told the media in Baghdad that the referendum was not meant to "impress'' Washington but that it was part of the country's "democratic tradition''. Ibrahim, while officially announcing the result of referendum, said that the people of Iraq had made a decisive choice by electing Saddam Hussein as the leader of the "jehadist march''. The looming war against the United States has been characterised as a "jehad'' in the Iraqi media and also in influential sections of the Arab media. Ibrahim said that only the "enemies of the Iraqi people" were sceptical about the referendum.

He said that all the 11.5 million eligible voters had cast their ballots in favour of a second term for Saddam Hussein. Hundred per cent polling may sound hard to believe but this correspondent witnessed Iraqis queueing up since early morning in the northern city of Mosul to cast their ballots. In many polling booths there were frenzied scenes of voters stamping "yes'' on ballot papers with the blood from their thumbs which were pricked with pins. A festive air prevailed around the polling centres, with music bands playing outside and slogans in praise of the President being raised around the area where the ballot box was kept.

"With our blood and souls we defend Saddam Hussein,'' went a popular slogan. Families came together to the voting centres, and there were the aged, the ill and the physically handicapped. "This is Iraq and these are the people of Iraq. How will America fight these great people? How much will America lose and for what reason?'' Izzat Ibrahim asked reporters outside a polling station in Baghdad.

The ruling Ba'ath Party once again demonstrated its organisational capacity and clout. The party is active even in the remotest of villages. It had urged the populace to come out in force to the polling booths to show their support for President Saddam in the wake of the repeated threats he received from President Bush. A banner displayed in a Baghdad street read: "25 million Iraqis say Yes to the Leader. With your eyes and spirit, we will survive until all the bad things stop. We say Yes to Saddam with this referendum. We say Yes with all our ancestors. 25 million say Yes to Saddam Hussein.''

Saddam Hussein, in his first comments after the referendum results were out, said that the U.S. threats had bolstered his popular support and showed that Iraq's leadership and its people were one. "It was natural for Iraqis to get mobilised in the face of the challenge... It was their chance to seize a historic opportunity to take a sincere stand,'' Saddam told the Revolutionary Command Council the day after the results were announced.

Izzat Ibrahim told the media in Baghdad that all freedom was given to the citizens to say "no''. The results, he said, reflected the "heartfelt and sincere sentiments'' of the Iraqi people. He claimed that more than 1,00,000 Iraqi Kurds from the "autonomous'' northern part of Iraq, administered by the Kurdish opposition, had crossed over "illegally'' to participate in the referendum. "The people have said no to the U.S. and are prepared for the battle,'' said Ibrahim. Vice-President Tariq Aziz characterised the referendum result as "a clear expression of Iraqis' steadfastness against American threats''.

THE referendum coincided with the frenetic diplomatic manoeuvres of the Bush administration to get a tough resolution passed in the United Nations Security Council authorising military action against Iraq. It has been obvious for quite some time that the Bush administration is almost totally isolated internationally on the Iraq issue. Barring Britain, Australia, Bulgaria, Romania and a few others, no country has seen it fit to jump onto the American bandwagon. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) officially made its opposition to a war on Iraq clear at the U.N. in the third week of October.

However, many people in Baghdad were a little surprised that India, which at one time proudly donned the leadership mantle of NAM, had been rather frugal in its support for the beleaguered Iraqi people. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in his speech at the U.N. in September, did not mention Iraq or, for that matter, criticise the U.S. threat of war against Iraq. For the record, however, Indian officials oppose a regime change of the kind being propounded by the Bush administration.

Nasra al-Sadoon, editor-in-chief of Iraq Daily, says that the rest of the world should realise that if the U.S. gains control of Iraq's oil resources, American companies will have a virtual monopoly over the global oil business. This could make the price of oil unaffordable for many countries. But she would not hazard a guess about the inevitability of war.

Iraqis generally are stoical about matters of war and peace. ''What more harm can America do to us?'' asked a young resident of the capital, who works for a trading firm.

IN the six months that have lapsed since this correspondent was in Baghdad previously, impressive buildings have come up. These include the Ba'ath Party headquarters, which was bombed during the 1991 Gulf War. New and bigger cars are on the streets. Civil servants have been given a small pay hike. New double-decker passenger buses ply the streets of Baghdad. Iraq has rebuilt its transport infrastructure, depending entirely on home-grown expertise. Domestic air services operate on schedule. Iraqi Air has two flights daily to Basra and Mosul, the two other major cities in the country. U.S. planes bombed the airports in Basra and Mosul this October, on the grounds that there were radars there. "How can any airport operate without radars?'' asks al-Sadoon.

Iraqi officials are justifiably proud of the fact that despite the economic embargo against their country, they have been able to achieve so much. But the right-wing cabal that is in power in the U.S. could not obviously stomach the fact that Iraq was breaking out of its diplomatic isolation and the quality of life for ordinary Iraqis was slowly improving. The sanctions that have been in force for the last 12 years have affected every segment of Iraqi society. The Iraqi dinar, which was equal to $3 before the Gulf War, has lost its value by nearly 6000 times. Unemployment continues to be high. Infant mortality rates have increased drastically.

A million children have died since 1991. "Three thousand to four thousand Iraqis die every day, mostly as result of the embargo. The world does not consider that a catastrophe while it considers September 11 so. Are Iraqis not considered human?'' asks al-Sadoon. The number of children attending school has also shown a significant decrease in the last 10 years. Iraq cannot even import pencils as the U.N. Sanctions Committee, which the U.S. dominates, has ruled that the lead in the pencil can be used for "dual purposes''. Because of the sanctions and lack of finances, the government has not been able to repair the damage inflicted during the Gulf War on water and environmental sanitation facilities. Non-availability of spares and malfunctioning of the sewerage treatment plants have added to the people's woes. Nearly 5,00,000 tonnes of untreated sewage is pumped directly into freshwater bodies every day. It is therefore not surprising that in the last decade there has been a tremendous increase in the cases of diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid.

Yet the Bush administration seems determined to wreak more devastation on Iraq. "War means some will die and some will survive,'' says al-Sadoon. Iraq, she stresses, has been in a state of continuous war since the Gulf War. The last big military operation against Iraq was "Operation Desert Fox'' in 1998. She points out that the U.N. Security Council has "done nothing'' to protect Iraq. Every day, U.S. warplanes bomb the "no-fly zones'' in the north and south of Iraq . ''The Americans can start bombing any time. We are used to it,'' says al-Sadoon.

She discounts any military invasion from the north. "The Kurds are not like the Northern Alliance (of Afghanistan). If the Kurds leave their territory, the Turks will occupy it.'' The U.S. is apparently toying with the idea of balkanising Iraq, by cutting off the north and the south from the central part. But the U.S.' close political and military ally in the region, Turkey, has given notice that a Kurdish state on its borders is unacceptable to it. Turkey also has territorial claims on the oil-producing parts of northern Iraq. Indications are that the various Kurdish factions currently running the "autonomous zone'' in the north will prefer the status quo to an uncertain future under Turkish domination.

Another war scenario being talked about is that of a U.S. force moving into the unpopulated desert region near Baghdad and encircling the capital. It is a well-known fact that Iraq today is militarily weak. While the West talks about Iraq still possessing weapons of mass destruction, the truth is that it lacks even modern weapons. The Scuds have all been destroyed, if former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter is to be believed. The anti-aircraft guns manning the buildings in Baghdad seem to be of Second World War vintage.

However, all Iraqi citizens men, women and children have been given small arms. The Iraqi people know that the next war will be a fight for their culture, civilisation and unity. Saddam Hussein assured visiting Arab dignitaries recently that Iraq would not let the Arab and Muslim world down if a military showdown with the U.S. becomes inevitable.

"We do not have the armaments, so the fight will have to be soldier against soldier,'' says al-Sadoon. Massive bombing during the 1991 war could not bring about a regime change. American soldiers will have to go into Baghdad and other cities if they are really serious about the business of regime change.

Izzat Ibrahim said that the U.S. was "day-dreaming'' about a regime change. Iraq, he revealed, has taken many preparatory measures "to eliminate American superiority'' in case the U.S. makes a ground attack. "If they come on land we will fight them everywhere. Every house, every shepherd has a role. They can only take the land without the people. Defeat is impossible.''

In mid-October Ibrahim expressed the hope that a war could be averted. "We don't wish that the war take place. It is not in the interest of both the American and the Iraqi people,'' he said. The Iraqi leader said that he expected the international community to help avert a war. He wanted France, Russia and China to play a positive role in the crucial Security Council deliberations scheduled for the last week of October. He said the "Arab street'' was always with Iraq.

The Arab governments have also expressed their opposition to the U.S. game plan for the region. Iraqi officials are confident that none of the Arab states will participate in case a war is launched. They feel that though Qatar and Kuwait may provide military bases to the U.S., their armies will not participate in the war, owing to political and demographic exigencies. "Any aggression on Iraq is an attack on the Arab countries and their systems. If Iraq is defeated, then there will be no independent Arab government,'' said Ibrahim.

In the third week of October, an international group of Christian clergymen issued an appeal to the world community to come to Iraq's defence. Jean Marie-Benjamin, a French Catholic priest, who organised the first flight to Iraq in order to break the international air embargo said that "the project of Washington to bomb Iraq is not only against Saddam Hussein but against the Iraqi people to control this country for oil''.

He said that the U.N. weapons inspectors urgently need to go to the U.S. and Israel, as these two countries between themselves have the biggest arsenal of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the world.

Monsignor Hillarion Capucci, the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said that he was "praying that President Bush reconsider his decision to strike Iraq and spare the Iraqi people the horrors of war. I came to Iraq to say no to war because war is catastrophic for everyone. Even the winner will be a loser.''

Gino Strada, executive director of the Italian aid agency Emergency, predicted an "exceedingly high number of civilian casualties'' if an attack was launched on Iraq. There are many who believe that the U.S. will hence once again resort to a cowardly war of aerial bombings and missile attacks.

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