KERBALA, Iraq – On the grounds of a grand mosque where the forces of Saddam Hussein slaughtered Shiite Muslim opponents in 1991, government workers quietly doled out rations of raw lamb on Tuesday.
From the light poles where Shiites were hanged after the Persian Gulf War, purple Hussein banners fluttered next to gold ones honoring some of the ancient Muslim holy men.
And in schools where Shiites once cowered from Hussein’s terror, thousands turned out to circle their “yes” vote for Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, in an uncontested referendum to re-elect him.
“We join with Saddam in the fight against the enemy America,” said Mohammed Fadhil, a Shiite teacher who survived Hussein’s crackdown in 1991 and proudly cast a pro-Hussein ballot Tuesday morning.
Whether or not the public show of Shiite unity is to be believed, Western diplomats and foreign aid officials say that Hussein seems to be attempting an unprecedented genteel strategy to unite Iraqis against American war threats.
Instead of using force and might, Hussein is courting the Iraqi people with favors and meat. He hopes to forestall the grumbling and discontent that preceded the Gulf War, foreign observers say.
“He is trying to do everything in his power to keep people calm and to give them the idea that things are getting better for them,” said one Western diplomat.
In recent months, Hussein has doubled the monthly food rations given to each of the country’s 23 million people for less than the equivalent of 25 cents. He has given thousands of government and military workers free plots of land. He has freed more than 10,000 prisoners.
Hussein has wooed hundreds of rural tribal leaders, who control millions of people in the countryside, with bribes, donations and presents of weapons, diplomats say.
For the working class, he has allowed the black market to be flooded with cheap cars, electronic gear and consumer goods smuggled in despite international sanctions.
Privately, Iraqi officials say that a reshuffling of the government and easing of restrictions on ordinary Iraqis could be imminent as Hussein tries to convince the world that he is a benevolent ruler.
Western diplomats, used to being snubbed and waiting months for routine requests to be addressed, now say that answers come within hours.
“He is even making things easier for us,” one diplomat said with a laugh.
It is difficult, however, to gauge whether Hussein’s strategy is working.
Iraqis are interviewed mostly in the presence of foreign escorts and any criticism of Hussein is against the law.
Behind close doors, many Iraqis say they favor a regime change but fear the deadly repercussions of an American invasion.
But whether Shiites side with Hussein if war breaks out could be a crucial wild card in the success of U.S. intervention, Western observers say.
Shiites have long been targets of Hussein’s wrath, according to human rights reports and witness accounts, and they pine for payback.
Iraq is ruled by a Sunni minority and controlled by Hussein’s mostly secular Baath Party. Shiites, the religious arm of the downtrodden in Iraq, compromise nearly 65 percent of the population but do not share in the power.
Many long for the day to oust Hussein, Western observers say.
In 1991, Shiites, encouraged by the U.S. administration, revolted against Hussein’s Baath Party.
In this historic burial ground for Shiite imams, people took to the streets against Baath rulers, throwing more than 70 officials out of office windows so they could be beaten to death by mobs.