Iraqi President Saddam Hussein failed to show up for his own party Friday, as thousands of Iraqis marched through the streets of this northern town to celebrate his 63rd birthday.
It was the president's number two, Ezzat Ibrahim, who took the salute in Tikrit, the town near Saddam's birthplace, some 170 kilometers (105 miles) north of Baghdad and traditional focus of the celebrations.
Ibrahim, who cut a huge cake in the shape of a white flower to the tune of "Happy Birthday to You", wished a "long life for our leader." Saddam has been in power since 1979.
The governor of Salaheddin province, Tareq al-Hazzah, presented Ibrahim with a photo of the Iraqi leader kissing the Kaaba in Mecca, the most important Islamic site.
The Tikrit parade was attended by all Iraq's ministers as well as leading members of the ruling Baath party dressed in their olive green battle-dress. Foreign dignitaries and other invited celebrities also attended.
Young women in traditional Arab and Kurdish dress performed folkloric dances, while troops from the army, navy and air force marched past, followed by thousands of men and women from tribes from every province.
The marchers chanted: "By our blood, by our soul, we will defend you, O Saddam." They brandished portraits of the Iraqi leader and unfurled banners that read: "Saddam is the best leader for the best people" and "Happy birthday Mr. President."
Meanwhile, Saddam himself celebrated with a group of schoolchildren, who put on a fashion show for him, the official INA news agency reported.
Saddam, born on April 28, 1937, in the nearby village of Owja, started to celebrate his birthday on a nationwide scale even before the embargo slapped on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which also triggered the Gulf conflict.
But the festivities have increased in scope each year.
The grand official ceremony was held in Saddam Thar Thar, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, while Saddam celebrated with the schoolchildren at an undisclosed location.
The streets of Baghdad were also packed with thousands of Iraqis carrying giant portraits of Saddam and banners. They gathered from early Friday morning in front of the presidential palace to pass on their birthday wishes.
Such grand celebrations have been held every year in Iraq since 1985, despite the poverty that has gripped the country as a result of U.N. economic sanctions imposed following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A severe drought since last year has magnified the hardships. U.N. relief officials say it is the costliest disaster in Iraq's modern history after wars and sanctions – (Agencies)
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