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Filed October 15, 2002 By Jeremy Scahill
As the people of Tikrit went to the polls in a national referendum on the Iraqi leader, many pricked their thumbs with needles or knives before pressing them on the box marked "Yes."

TIKRIT—When the people of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, chant "We will give our blood for you, oh Saddam," they mean what they say. As they went to the polls today in a national referendum on the Iraqi leader, many Tikritis pricked their thumbs with needles or knives before pressing them on the box marked "Yes."

Polling places across this small town a few hundred miles north of Baghdad were packed. People danced and sang as they crammed around ballot boxes, many eager to openly display to foreign journalists which box they had marked.

"This selection of the leader of Saddam Hussein is a weapon to reject all American army intrusions into Iraq," said a man waiting in line to cast his "yes" ballot.

"This is the land of Saladin and the land of the leader Saddam Hussein," yelled a man dressed in traditional Kurdish garb. "Our grandfathers didn't accept the crusaders and we will never accept Bush."

Baghdad may be the capital city of Iraq, but Tikrit is Saddam country. On April 28, 1937, Hussein was born in a mud brick hut in the village of Al-Auja on the outskirts of the city. Since taking power in Iraq in 1979, Saddam has built up Tikrit, erecting a massive palace surrounded by great cement walls and guard towers. Anti-aircraft batteries lie on rooftops throughout the city center, as well as in bunkered ditches along the desert roads in and out of Tikrit.

Foreign journalists are almost never permitted to enter the city. On the outskirts of Tikrit, a huge gate spans across the four-lane highway. A massive mural sprawls above, depicting an epic Saddam Hussein riding on horseback, galloping toward Jerusalem. Missiles and warplanes fly above him. The nicely paved roads into Tikrit are lined with hundreds of posts decorated with various portraits of the Iraqi leader.

But Tikrit's significance in Arab history cuts much deeper than the current Iraqi president. It is also the birthplace, in 1138, of the Muslim holy warrior Saladin, who crushed the Crusaders, liberating Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187.

At the outskirts of the city today, a busload of foreign journalists was permitted to film the massive gate to Tikrit. A trickle of cars sped in and out of the city, honking their horns—some brandishing large Iraqi flags. But as the journalists were about to re-board the bus and continue into the city, several flatbed trucks full of Iraqi Army soldiers sped through the gates. They loudly chanted slogans of loyalty to Saddam. Cars began stopping and within minutes the roads in and out of the city were jammed with a mob of people dancing and chanting.

In Tikrit, Iraq - the birthplace of Saddam Hussein - many voters marked their ballots with their own blood, saying they were wiling to shed their blood against America.

The scene at various polling stations within Tikrit was identical. One after another, people repeated that they were voting "yes to the leader Saddam Hussein and no to Bush." Children wore T-shirts featuring a smiling Saddam with the phrase "As Saddam Says, So Does Iraq." Women passed out plastic bags filled with pictures of the president and a handful of small candies.

"Today is like a national wedding," said Adnan, a Professor of engineering at the University of Tikrit. "Saddam is Iraq and Iraq is Saddam."

Though this referendum has been dismissed by Washington as a sham and a show, this process of confirming the leader, rather than electing him, was not conceived by the current Iraqi government. In 1921 the British colonialists held a referendum in Iraq to confirm the legitimacy of the puppet government of King Faisal I.

No exit polls are available, but results from today's referendum are expected late tonight or early tomorrow.

Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.

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