B A G H D A D, Iraq, April 29, 2002 -- New portraits of the man who has ruled Iraq for more than 20 years went up on street corners across the country, cakes were distributed in small towns and a state-run television station was renamed Birthday Television just for the occasion.
But of the birthday boy himself, the seemingly indomitable Saddam Hussein, who turned 65 on Sunday, there was no sign.
Saddam himself does not attend his birthday celebrations, but officials of his Baath party were out in numbers, joining tens of thousands of Iraqis on the streets of Baghdad in choreographed rage against Washington's stated aim of overthrowing the Iraqi dictator.
The massive birthday celebrations came amid reports that the Bush administration, despite its failure to win Arab support for any military action in Iraq, was drawing up plans for a possible invasion early next year.
The contingency plans being considered included a major air campaign and ground invasion, involving the use of 70,000 to 250,000 troops, according to a report in the New York Times on Sunday.
But in the capital of Baghdad, Saddam is omnipresent. There he is, on just about every street corner, the mustachioed leader smiling out from a 20-foot high poster or cast as a bronze statue, one arm stretched toward his people.
There is a museum in Baghdad dedicated to Saddam, filled with paintings of his likeness, guns and gifts he has received from foreign leaders and one room detailing the history of his life — photos of the house where he was born, his first school report card and the images of his rise to power.
In the Al-Rashid Hotel, where most foreign journalists stay, dozens of Saddam Hussein portraits have been placed temporarily on display. For those of us too young to have missed the personality cults of Vladimir Lenin or Mao Zedong, it is a shocking sight.
All the World’s a Stage
The 65th birthday celebrations, which included the cutting of a giant pink birthday cake in Saddam's home town of Tikrit, is the reason so many of us in the foreign press were finally granted visas to enter this country.
On Sunday, a senior Baath party official accepted a golden statue of the 12th-century warrior prince Saladdin — famed in the Muslim world for his courage and wisdom during the battled of the Crusades — on their leader's behalf.
And Iraq's Youth Television station, which is run by Saddam's notorious eldest son Uday, has been re-christened Birthday Television.
This week, there was a road race in Saddam's honor, new statues have been unveiled and on Friday night a new play opened in Baghdad — Zabiba and the King, based on a novel that is believed to have been written by Saddam himself.
It tells the story of a king who falls in love with a country girl. But then one day — the date happens to be January 17, the same date that the U.S. and its allies bombed Iraq during the Gulf War — she is raped. The king, who is much loved by his people, eventually avenges the crime by killing the rapists. Although the play got rave reviews all week, the theater was only half filled on opening night.
Empty seats are about the only obvious evidence of public disinterest in Saddam. The newspapers were packed with congratulatory birthday letters and poems. By Saturday, the newspaper Al-Jumhuriya had only two pages of news; the other 20 pages were filled with love letters to Saddam from citizens, government ministers and companies.
"To the Great Sword of the Nation," one of them read, "Thanks to God who gave this nation a believer, a son, a good Arab." A company called the "Bin Omeir Holding Group" apparently paid for it.
If people are critical of the birthday celebrations, they keep their feelings to themselves. A cautious wink or a frustrated sigh is about the only dissent one can find. It is hard to tell if this is out of fear of punishment or because of anger about the Palestinian crisis and the U.S. threats against Iraq.
"It is because of the threats," one Iraqi said. "The birthday is a symbol of our defiance of America."
In a Saturday editorial one newspaper put it this way: "Celebrating our Leader's birthday is celebrating our resistance, resilience and rebirth. Saddam Hussein isn't a president like the others, he is the symbol of resisting the Zionist American plots to monopolize Arab resources."
The Iraqi leader has survived for decades by demonizing his enemies and exploiting the Iraqis' sense of vulnerability. It just so happens that with the United States threatening to attack Iraq, and Israel moving violently against the Palestinians, Saddam seems to be surviving quite easily and his popularity is on the rise.