On referendum day last Tuesday, the cult of personality around Saddam Hussein reached a new pitch. Painters had churned out new portraits by the dozen, banners had been hung in towns across the country and when you picked up the telephone, you didn't hear the dial tone, but a song in praise of the leader. Our official tour bus for reporters on the referendum sported two Iraqi flags and a poster of the president in a white suit, with the legend: "Our hearts beat for you Saddam. You are our pride." At the polling station, little girls dressed in shiny pink dresses and scarlet lace headbands capered around the courtyard yelling: "Pray for the Prophet! Saddam Hussein is the new Prophet!"
We were in Karbala, one of the holiest shrines of Shia Islam, so this last sentiment seemed a little over the top. The Shias of Iraq share the same form of Islam as Iranians, and the faithful from both countries come here on pilgrimages. Saddam Hussein is a Sunni Muslim, but Shias are in the majority in Iraq. Their resentment of Sunni power boiled over after the Gulf war, but the rebellion was brutally suppressed and much of Karbala destroyed. Today, Karbala is a modern town, rebuilt to pacify the Shias. The shrine to Hussain, the Prophet's grandson who founded Shia Islam, glitters with new gold-leaf. On referendum day, worshippers prayed and enjoyed meat distributed by the mosque servants, but another portrait had been added to the display: Saddam Hussein, in a glittering golden jacket, right there on the walls of Hussain's tomb.
A few said they had come from Basra for the festival and would unfortunately be unable to cast their referendum vote, but no one was prepared to comment on Saddam's elevation to the same status as their most revered imams.
The following day, one of the president's senior aides, Izzat Ibrahim, announced a 100 per cent "yes" vote. The pale, wizened man addressed several hundred international journalists in flowery Arabic comparing Saddam Hussein to the Prophet. The Ba'ath Party is secular, but the logic was clear: to defend Iraq and Saddam Hussein is to defend Islam.
"It is like the time at the beginning of the eternal message of Islam," he said. "Did the companions at that time abandon the prophet? No!" Western journalists sat baffled during the long peroration, wondering why the Iraqi regime had gathered so many reporters to hear a result that none of us would credit and an explanation that defied reason: Iraqis voted yes to Saddam because they think he is "a beacon, the sky, the spirit of history". Then it was time for questions. A Palestinian journalist jumped up and compared the struggles of the Iraqi and the Palestinian peoples. A Tunisian reporter used the occasion to congratulate the winning candidate. A Pakistani took it upon himself to declare that the Pakistani people would never support war against brother Muslims. Cynical westerners like us were not the target audience. The speech was for the Arab world, and the people and nations that resent American power.
The referendum had been a charade. In some polling stations, officials crammed handfuls of ballot papers into the boxes. There was the barest attempt to pretend that votes were gathered and counted. Iraqis know the reality of life under the dictator. But beyond Iraq, Saddam Hussein is gaining currency as a leader who will stand up to imperialist America, a saviour of oppressed people. As anti-Americanism grows around the world, many would like to see him as their prophet.
Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4 News diplomatic correspondent