BAGHDAD -- The latest story in Baghdad goes like this: An Iraqi, angry at Saddam Hussein, votes "no" in today's presidential referendum.
But as he leaves the polling place he gets nervous about his boldness, and rushes back to change his vote.
"Don't worry," the elections official tells him.
"We've already done it for you."
There is little doubt that the referendum will produce a total victory for the Iraqi president.
The only question seems to be why he bothers with the charade.
Billed as the first "election" in Iraq's modern history, the balloting will ask Iraqis to approve Mr. Hussein's nomination to a seven-year term as president.
He is the only candidate.
"It's a rather naive way of showing Saddam is still very popular," said an Eastern diplomat.
"It fools no one. But it will help his propaganda. He will be able to say, 'Look, the people want me.' "
To make the point, no excess is too vulgar, no sycophancy discouraged for this campaign.
Portraits of Mr. Hussein have been repainted, and new ones commissioned.
Banners are strung over Baghdad's streets urging a "Yes" vote for Saddam Hussein.
Hundreds of foreign journalists have been invited to cover the event.
The Mansour Melia Hotel, where many of them are housed, is decorated with colored Christmas lights that spell out in English, "We Say Yes To Saddam Hussein."
The president grins from thousands of posters.
It is almost as though this dictator, who is alleged to have begun his government career as an interrogator in a torture chamber, now wants his people to love him.
Perhaps he needs some cuddling.
It has been a bad year for Mr. Hussein.
There have been rumors of revolts brewing in the army. The U.N. sanctions stayed on.
His hot-headed son, Uday, shot up a family gathering. Then two daughters and their husbands defected to Jordan, spilling embarrassing state secrets.
So how to cheer up? Hold a referendum.
"When the election was announced, people scoffed at it," said an Iraqi, speaking in hushed tones and casting furtive glances, refusing to give his name.
"Everybody said they either won't vote, or they will vote no.
"But then we started to hear these stories: If we don't vote yes, we will lose our ration cards, or we will not be allowed to travel out of the country.
"We heard that if one area puts in a number of blank ballots, they will cut off the electricity to that area.
"Then we heard they may have some sort of secret mark that they could identify each ballot. It sent chills up our spines. Now everybody is voting.
"We are so fearful. I even know a 78-year-old woman with arthritis so bad she can't walk, but she will go to vote."
Maybe all the rumors are false, he conceded. But who can take a chance?
Functionaries of Mr. Hussein's Ba'ath Party visited every house within the past weeks, ceremoniously checking the names of inhabitants and inquiring as to whether they will vote.
The message was not lost on the families.
"Intimidation? They really don't need to do that," said a diplomat in Baghdad.
"This is a crushed populace.
"And besides, who does the counting? Who does the tabulation?"
It's been said that Mr. Hussein lives in a world removed from
He has taken his people to two disastrous wars. World sanctions have brought his once-modern country to the brink of economic collapse.
4 He lives extravagantly while most Iraqis starve.
His own family members, away from Iraq, have described him as a liar and a cheat bent on building weapons for mass murder.
Now he holds what amounts to a popularity poll.
"For some countries in the region, the election will be convenient to believe," said one diplomat.
"They want to see him weak, and they want to see him stay."
To make sure nothing goes awry in the referendum, the regime's apparatus has been in full swing.
The nightly television news shows have been interviewing everyone from sheiks to street sweepers -- even nuns -- to broadcast their endorsement of the president.
The preferred slogan is "Yes, yes, to Saddam Hussein."
It replaces "Down with America" and the golden oldie, still revived from time to time, "Bush [pronounced Boosh] is Criminal, Bush is Criminal."
"He will make sure he gets 99.6 percent of the vote," said a Western diplomat in Jordan.
"He'll shoot the remaining 0.4 percent."
Mr. Hussein's violent history justifies such cynical predictions. He was once quoted as saying he would start World War III before giving up power.
For this referendum theater, he has invited supporting actors.
The imposing Al-Rasheed Hotel, already wired for eavesdropping More than a hotel," its advertisements say) has been cleared out for delegations from other countries to come to watch the election.
Expected are the usual cadres from the Third World, for whom any enemy of America is a friend, and a smattering of Western leftists and maverick politicians.
And hundreds of journalists.
"The Iraqis will publish that so many journalists were here and they were given freedom to monitor the election, and it will give the vote credibility," said a Western diplomat.
The press is being used, but not very well.
Even the greenest PR man would jump at the chance to feed the dozens of hungry television lenses and empty reporters' notebooks by trotting out some officials to sing the praises of Iraq. Not here.
The regime instinctively reacts like a turtle, pulling its head into a shell whenever a stranger exhibits curiosity.
Mr. Hussein and his top aides are not to be seen. Interviews with government ministers are rare.
Even the functionaries of the ubiquitous Ministry of Information are reluctant to say anything, afraid they might be quoted.
So reporters plumb the markets and street corners for the expectable man-on-the-street interviews.
In a place like Iraq, the technique does not work. People do not refuse to talk; on the contrary, their lines are too well learned.
"We will vote the democratic way. We will chose the president," said Mohammed Hassan, 23, selling plastic bags in the market.
"He's our ideal," said student Mutham Salam, 24.
"I say yes, yes, for Saddam Hussein. He's our leader and we will elect him," said Zaneb Heider, 40, a woman dressed in black selling bath sponges on the sidewalk.
Reporters dutifully record what they say. It is a farce, and all parties to the transaction know it: the reporter, the translator, the interviewee.
"If a television camera stops me on my way home, what am I going to say? Of course I have to say yes," confided one interviewee, ardently anti-Hussein. "It's just fear. It's almost like terrorism."
Each day, participants of "spontaneous demonstrations' are given their assignments and are brought by government bus.
They chant the "yes, yes" slogan with feverish excitement for the TV crews. Then they go home.
An Iraqi TV editorial suggested last week that the slogan ought to be changed to say "yes" seven times for the seven years of the term.
Iraqis today will obediently cast their ballots at places like The Sovereignty of The Country Secondary School. It is a worn old school designated area 9, polling center 5, in downtown Baghdad. Potential voters enter under a sign reminding them "Yes, Yes for Leader Saddam Hussein."
More than 5,000 voters are expected to line up on the school's cracked concrete courtyard today. Each will be handed a slip of cheap, flimsy paper that urges them "in the name of the most merciful God" to check one of two boxes: yes or no.
Those still pondering their choice may get motivation from the posters plastered all around the courtyard with pictures of Saddam Hussein. In repose. In uniform. In Arab robes. Saluting. And banners urging, Yes, Yes, Yes.
Rahim Saher, a spice merchant, sounded enthusiastic about the forthcoming exercise in democracy. Asked if voting should be held more often, he replied, "No, once every seven years is enough."