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REFERENDUM STIRS FERVOR FOR SADDAM

SHARE REFERENDUM STIRS FERVOR FOR SADDAM

Saddam Hussein won the endorsement of almost every Iraqi voter to rule for seven more years, according to his government, which whipped up street demonstrations Monday in support of the isolated and hard-pressed leader.

Analysts believe Saddam used the presidential referendum on Sunday to stir up nationalism in the country of 20 million and distract the nation's attention from the defection of a top official, a devastated economy and sharp criticism from the United Nations.Saddam, the sole candidate, won 99.96 percent of the votes, said Ezzat Ibrahim, the man in charge of the vote. Of the 8,402,321 people eligible to vote, 8,357,560, or 99.5 percent, cast ballots - 8,348,700 of them in favor of Saddam, the government said.

"Today the truth has come and falsehood has been defeated," Ibrahim said Monday in a nationally televised speech.

Kuwaitis, meanwhile, dismissed Saddam's victory as a fraudulent stunt aimed at painting their former occupier as a democrat.

"Only 99 percent?" joked stock exchange trader Adnan al-Shalfan when told of the overwhelming endorsement.

"We were expecting 100 percent - at the very least."

Saddam has ruled without tolerating dissent since 1979, and his victory had been thought to be such a foregone conclusion that Washington dismissed the balloting as a sham.

In a country impoverished by U.N. trade sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Ibrahim congratulated Iraqis for using the vote "to overcome the forces of evil, darkness and cheating."

He called the ballot "a great victory" over enemies working "at the loss of their sick dreams and intentions."

Moments after Ibrahim finished his speech at the Conference Palace in Baghdad, hundreds of people raced out of their homes and apartments in the city and fired handguns and AK-47 rifles into the air to celebrate Saddam's victory.

Many others leaned out of their windows and balconies singing songs praising Saddam.