- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

BAGHDAD Voting was brisk and orderly yesterday as Iraqis choose a new parliament expected to be energized by the presence of President Saddam Hussein's eldest son and heir apparent.

Odai Hussein a powerful figure who was making his formal political debut was among 512 candidates running for 220 seats in the National Assembly. He was widely expected to win a seat, which will help him begin to build a formal power base.

The National Assembly, elected after a strictly controlled campaign, is seen as a rubber stamp for Saddam, doing little more than making recommendations to the Revolutionary Command Council he heads.

The 36-year-old Odai voted shortly before polls closed at 8 p.m., roaring up in a convoy of luxury cars and entering the polling station in an upscale neighborhood, surrounded by guards wearing business suits and toting automatic weapons.

Wearing a traditional black robe trimmed in gold and a flowing white headdress, Odai walked with difficulty as a result of injuries suffered in a 1996 assassination attempt.

He said he would do "whatever brings good to the great Iraqi people" after pulling his ballot from a pocket and dropping it into the box. He said he would work to bring Iraq the multiparty system his father promised a decade ago, but he did not elaborate.

While critics dismiss Iraq's democracy as a sham, Iraqis used the vote to express genuine fears and hopes.

Khuder Murad Atti, whose 11-year-old son has leukemia, said he hopes a new parliament will help lift an international trade embargo against Iraq imposed to punish Saddam for invading Kuwait in 1990.

"By putting honest people into the National Assembly … we can lift the embargo as soon as possible," said Mr. Atti.

The United States accuses Iraq of hiding weapons and has worked to ensure that sanctions remain in place, despite increasing criticism from around the world that they have crippled the Iraqi economy and done little to hurt Saddam.

Iraq is permitted to buy food and medicine under a U.N. program created in 1996 that allows Iraq to export oil through U.N.-controlled sales, provided the proceeds be used for humanitarian supplies.

Even so, with its economy weakened by sanctions and war, the Iraqi middle class has been stripped of its buying power.

Mr. Atti retired from a civil service job to try to make more money as a free-lance dealer in used goods. But he was selling most of his own household furniture a day before the vote. He needed to raise cash for his son's treatment for leukemia, which he said cost about $100 every 20 days. Mr. Atti, who has seven other children, said he earns less than $10 a month.

Turnout was reported high during 12 hours of voting at 1,574 stations across the country. Failing to vote could be seen as an expression of opposition to a government that tolerates little dissent and has portrayed the balloting as a signal to the West of its determination in the face of international isolation.

Counting began immediately after polls closed. Final results were expected today, and the parliament was expected to convene in April.

In addition to the lawmakers elected yesterday, Saddam will appoint 30 representatives for Kurdish areas in the north, where voting was not held. The Iraqi leader effectively lost control over Kurdish areas a decade ago in an uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

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