- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

BAGHDAD President Saddam Hussein has let it be known that in sympathy with the suffering of Palestinians, he will be toning down celebrations at his 65th birthday party today for 3,500 guests by ordering the dancing girls to stay at home.
"This year is different," said Uday Ta'ay, the director-general of Iraq's Ministry of Information. "In Palestine, they are demolishing villages and killing people. This is not a time for dancing."
The rest of the $8 million show part of the "spontaneous expression of love and respect from the people to the president" will go on as planned. There will be a birthday party in Saddam's home town of Tikrit, a military march-past and numerous renditions of "Happy Birthday" on national radio.
Saddam will remain modestly behind the scenes, as is usual during the nationwide festivities, until a television appearance scheduled for 9 p.m. "He is busy working, trying to break the U.S. embargo," Mr. Ta'ay said.
For Baghdad's cultural elite, there is the unprecedented thrill of a seat in the audience for the Iraqi National Theater world premiere production of "Zabibah and the King" the play of the novel by Saddam Hussein.
In a society where praise for the president is the only comment tolerated, the play's director is confident of success.
The plot revolves around a sovereign who falls in love with a common girl, a symbol of the hopes of the people. The CIA is reported to have studied the plot in the hope of gleaning some insight into the mind of the Iraqi leader whose protagonist, the good king, wants to be closer to his subjects but is blocked by his corrupt entourage in the pay of a foreign power.
"Iraqis know how to read between the lines, and they will understand the message the play carries," said Abdul Monsef Zaydi, a fine arts school teacher.
[Meanwhile, more than 250 Iraqi journalists partied at the empty U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which has been shuttered for more than 10 years, to celebrate Saddam's birthday, Agence France-Presse reported.
["Journalists picked this spot[] in order to express their defiance of the American administration," a party organizer said as several journalists waved portraits of Saddam, as well as Iraqi and Palestinian flags.]
The lavish celebrations today contrast starkly with the poverty that grips most of Iraq's 22 million inhabitants.
His celebrations coincide with the publication in "Atlantic Monthly" magazine in the United States of a profile of the Iraqi leader by Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," based on interviews with Iraqi defectors.
According to these interviews, Saddam had planned to tie captured American troops to Iraqi tanks, using them as human shields to protect his forces as they advanced into Saudi Arabia as part of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Saddam consciously has modeled himself on Josef Stalin, devouring dozens of books on the ruthless Soviet dictator who was responsible for the deaths of millions, according to the article.
For fear of showing any weakness, Saddam, who has a bad back and a slight limp, rarely is seen walking more than a few steps in public, takes exercise in the form of swims and walks away from prying eyes behind the high walls of his estates and dyes his graying hair black.
David Wastell reported from Washington.

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