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A return to Baghdad's Al-Rashid hotel

By Nic Robertson
CNN Senior International Correspondent

CNN's Nic Robertson
CNN's Nic Robertson

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CNN's Nic Robertson reports on the upcoming Iraqi referendum on Saddam Hussein as president. (October 14)
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Trying not to tread heavily on the mosaic of George Bush Sr.'s face on the foyer floor, I begin my return to Baghdad and the familiar yet gloomy surroundings of the infamous Al-Rashid hotel.

From here I had helped CNN's team cover the first Persian Gulf War. And now, I had come to see if there is to be a second.

Porters rushing to help with my bags stomp obliviously over Bush's features, apparently indifferent to the garish tiling. The mosaic was reportedly commissioned by hotel workers angered by the U.S. president who attacked their country and who they blamed when a cruise missile was shot down and exploded in the hotel grounds in 1993.

Once inside the fortress-like building, it felt as if I had never left Baghdad. In fact, it had been several months since my last visit.

The lobby décor -- unchanged since the Gulf War and now well worn and on the slippery slope to seediness -- showed little restraint in its decline since my previous visit. But I don't mind being back; I like it. The friendly staff can always be counted on to brighten the place, reciprocating a smile whatever their hardships or political tensions between our countries.

But like the fixtures, even the workers show signs of wear. It used to be they might ask if there would be war again. Now fatalism seems to have taken hold and they no longer find it necessary to inquire. Only pleasantries pass their lips, except of course requests for tips. Here, only hard currency communicates understanding of their plight.

The air of friendliness and better days gone by that grace the Al-Rashid lobby are mirrored on the sweltering streets.

A smiling vendor entices this passing journalist in to his store. It seems a shame not to oblige the hospitality with a cursory look. But what need do I have now of a watch with Saddam's face or a shabby 1980s-style cigarette holder? It's hard to tell the owner that his country has fallen so far behind Western thinking; that smoking is now so frowned upon in many public places fewer and fewer choose to do it.

Although Iraq's dwindling middle class has access to computers, much of what makes up our modern lives appears to have eluded this oil-rich nation. Mobile phones and pagers, the must-have gadgets of the late 20th century, are forbidden by the government.

But this week is a time of choice for Iraqis. In Tuesday's referendum, they can vote for or against President Saddam Hussein. But ask them -- and as journalists we must do this with a government minder present -- if they aren't concerned there is no other politician to vote for, and they say, "No! Saddam is the only Iraqi leader and we want him."

Reared on a Western-style democracy, I am compelled to ask, "But why is a choice of one good enough for you?" One youngster genuinely seemed flummoxed by the question, turning for inspiration to an official just out of camera shot nearby. He didn't need to be asked to help; he was already telling her what to say.

Even so, it is hard to doubt that many here believe what they say. Nevertheless, I want to ask: "Why do you believe it?" But then, with a government official at my side, perhaps it's some thing they can't answer.

Maybe it's me. I can't see with their eyes. Only they know the reality of their everyday lives. That one mistake could cost them their livelihood and two errors maybe cost much more.

Of the hundreds of journalists now filling the rooms at Al-Rashid, I detect little doubt that this referendum is as much about sending a message of solidarity to the United States as it is about reaffirming President Saddam Hussein's leadership.

The outcome of the vote is a foregone conclusion: President Saddam Hussein will remain in power.

Also beyond doubt is that when this is all over and the crowds of journalists with the hard to get visas no longer throng the Al-Rashid lobby, the fixtures will look a little sadder, the smiles on the faces of the staff somewhat more weary, and Bush Sr.'s face a little more scuffed.



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