Millions mark Saddam Hussein's birthday
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Millions of Iraqis were estimated to have gathered across Iraq on Sunday in celebration of President Saddam Hussein's 65th birthday.
Iraqi television carried live coverage of the celebrations in the president's home town of Tikrit and across the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
An estimated 1 million people gathered in the city with major parts of the city closed, The Associated Press reported.
In different provinces, crowds led by members of the ruling Ba'ath party took to the streets baying, singing, dancing and wishing Hussein a happy birthday.
As expected, the man dubbed by U.S. President Bush as a menace to his own people did not appear at the main gatherings -- he was seen in a TV video recording at a small celebration with children at a secret location.
The festivities came as The New York Times was reporting that the Bush administration was formulating a war plan to topple him next year involving 70,000 to 250,000 U.S. troops. (Full story)
In Tikrit, 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Baghdad, one of Hussein's closest aides, Ali Hassan al-Majid, led the ceremonies, cutting a giant cake and firing a revolver in the air in celebration.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis attended the ceremonies in Tikrit, waving pictures of the president and chanting their support.
Diplomats and journalists were bussed in from the capital -- an unusually "open" initiative from a regime that usually makes plain its mistrust of Western reporters.
A play based on the life of Hussein opened to rave reviews this weekend. Earlier, couples had gathered in Baghdad for a mass wedding of 300 couples as part of Hussein's birthday celebrations. (Play marks Hussein's 65th)
A Ba'ath party official told reporters the celebrations were a message to the Americans, Zionists and British that Iraqis would fight for the president.
Iraqi media feted him as a symbol of "the homeland."
"The birth of the leader is the birth of the hope we desired," added the official Al-Iraq newspaper.
The government press published letters from well-wishers congratulating the president and renewing their allegiance to him.
Television carried songs of praise to the Iraqi leader and repeated old footage of Hussein embracing children, talking to ordinary Iraqis and saluting excited crowds.
The Iraqi satellite channel says it had produced birthday documentaries on Hussein's achievements, his commitment to the Palestinians and his close relation to his people. A number of mosques were inaugurated to mark the occasion.
If officials are to be believed, the celebrations could have been even bigger.
Earlier this week, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told the Saudi-owned satellite station, Middle East Broadcast Corporation that Hussein had demanded this year's birthday celebrations be scaled down in view of the deaths of Palestinians in clashes with Israelis.
Ramadan said ordinary Iraqis chose to celebrate in a way that expresses solidarity with and support for the Palestinians.
Analysts said the huge turnout showed the extent to which the president still controls Iraq.
Hussein has ruled the country since 1968, first as the strongman and formally as president since 1979. He remains a hero to many ordinary Arabs across the region for standing up to the United States and for championing the Palestinian cause.
Iraqi dissidents abroad denounced the birthday celebrations as a huge and hugely expensive, charade.
Analysts said that in a country where dissent is dealt with brutally and few public displays are spontaneous, it is difficult to judge how ordinary Iraqis felt about the birthday celebrations.
To some, the occasion may simply have been a respite from everyday hardships and a chance to eat birthday cake and other delicacies they cannot normally afford, AP reported.
-- CNN's Jane Arraf contributed to this report
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