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The BBC's Barbara Plett in Iraq
"The parties get bigger every year"
 real 28k

Friday, 28 April, 2000, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Saddam's birthday celebrations
Crowd
Crowds celebrate at Saddam's home town of Tikrit
Iraq marked President Saddam Hussein's 63rd birthday on Friday with nationwide festivities in a lavish display of government-sponsored loyalty toward a leader who has ruled with an iron hand for 21 years.

But while many senior Iraqi leadership figures attended celebrations at Saddam's home town of Tikrit, the president himself stayed away as he has done in recent years.

Instead Izzat Ibrahim, his deputy in the all-powerful Revolutionary Command Council, presided over the celebrations which featured dancing, songs and a huge flower-shaped cake.


Izzat Ibrahim
Izzat Ibrahim cut a special birthday cake
Marquees lined the 170km (106 mile) route from Baghdad to Tikrit, where huge cauldrons of rice and stewed meat were cooked and streets were festooned with ribbons.

After cutting the cake to the tune of "Happy Birthday To You", Ibrahim said: "We ask God ... to prolong his life and make this an occasion of victory to us and to our nation against our enemies and the enemies of humanity."

Tribal chieftains and members of the ruling Ba'ath party handed out sweets and glossy portraits of Saddam.

The crowd consisted mostly of young Ba'ath Party cadets and tribal representatives from several parts of Iraq.


Dancing girls
Iraqi school girls from Kerbala dancing at Tikrit
State-run newspapers splashed their pages with Saddam's pictures and articles praising him.

The ruling Ba'ath party's Al-Thawra claimed the festivities were "spontaneous" events, voluntarily prepared by Iraqis across the country.

Iraq has staged such grand celebrations annually since 1985, despite extreme poverty amid ten years of UN sanctions, magnified by severe drought since last year.

Sanction demands

Nevertheless, Saddam has retained a firm grip on power since 1979 with no serious domestic challenge.

With memories of the Gulf War defeat fading, he is increasingly defiant towards the UN, demanding all sanctions are lifted before allowing searches for weapons of mass destruction to continue.

He remains in power today despite nearly 10 years of UN sanctions and almost daily US and British air strikes.

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See also:

02 Apr 00 | Middle East
Iraq struggles under sanctions
01 Apr 00 | Middle East
Iraq claims victory in UN oil deal
14 Feb 00 | Middle East
'Lost generation' faces bleak future
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