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Iraqis Vote in Elections to Boost Morale, Baghdad’s Image

March 25, 1996

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Iraqis, struggling under a crippling economic embargo, have elected a new Parliament packed with supporters of Saddam Hussein.

Only candidates loyal to the president ran for the 220 seats at stake in Sunday’s balloting. First results were expected sometime today.

The voting came as Iraq tries to strike a deal with the United Nations to sell limited amounts of oil to buy food and medicine for its 20 million people.

The U.N. sanctions, imposed following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, have throttled Iraq’s oil-based economy.

Saddam has sought to improve Iraq’s image with the parliamentary elections _ the first in seven years _ and a presidential referendum last October in which he won 99.96 percent of the vote.

The leadership also hoped the elections would boost the Iraqi people’s morale.

Many voters Sunday said they were hopeful that a new Parliament could work toward a lifting of the sanctions.

``Ending the embargo is the most important thing to us. We need food and medicine,″ said Karima Hussein, a young woman who voted in the impoverished Saddam City area of the capital.

But the 250-seat Parliament has no real power and invariably backs Saddam, who makes all important decisions.

All 689 candidates were approved in advance by a government screening committee and are either members of Saddam’s Baath Party or independents who pledged their allegiance to the 1968 coup that brought the party to power.

During the campaign, candidates did not offer any detailed platforms. Many stressed their roles in the country’s two recent wars, the 1980-88 conflict with neighboring Iran and the 1990-91 Gulf crisis.

Iraqi officials have portrayed the two recent ballots as moves toward a constitutional government and democratic rule, but Iraq’s critics abroad have denounced the votes as a sham.

Iraqi opposition groups in exile Sunday criticized the ``farce of elections,″ urging Iraqis to boycott the polls.

Election officials Sunday estimated that 90 percent of Iraq’s 8 million registered voters would cast ballots.

There is no punishment for not voting, but in messages broadcast on radio and television, the government strongly urged Iraqis to turn out at the polls. For weeks, election officials made house-to-house calls to deliver voting certificates.

For the U.N. sanctions to be lifted, Iraq must destroy its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. However, U.N. inspectors say they are still skeptical about Iraq’s compliance and it’s unlikely the full sanctions will be lifted anytime soon.

Iraq has held two rounds of talks with the United Nations on a plan to sell $1 billion worth of oil every 90 days. The money would be used to buy food and medicine, pay war reparations and finance U.N. operations in Iraq.

Two rounds of talks in New York have failed to reach an agreement. A third round is to begin April 8.

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