Unlike last year, when Saddam Hussein was riding a wave of unprecedented popularity both in Iraq and within the Arab world, his 54th birthday Sunday mirrored the misfortune he has brought to the Iraqi people.

Last year, Iraq spent millions of dollars staging nationwide rallies, parties and open-door events that promoted the image of Saddam as the father of his nation and the natural leader of the Arab world.State-run print media devoted page after page in color to praise his achievements, including what it described at the time as Saddam's victory in the 1980-88 war with Iran.

Government-controlled radio and television for weeks carried long documentaries portraying the success of Saddam as the success of the Iraqi nation - a nation that had the natural right to call itself the intellectual and military leader of all the Arabs.

That was a year ago, when Iraq may not have had as much spare cash as its fellow gulf Arab oil producers, but it boasted a military arsenal that would have made even a European power feel secure.

On Sunday, even the state-controlled Iraqi media portrayed Saddam's 54th birthday in a different light.

Gone were the chants of "father of our nation," "Sad-dam the victorious" and "Saddam the life and blood of our people." This Sunday, after one of the bloodiest defeats ever inflicted on an Arab power, the most that an Iraqi television announcer could manage was a weak smile.

The official media scraped the bottom of the barrel when it referred to Saddam as "the leader." One radio announcer called him "the hero" but spoke the words in such a serious voice that viewers would have been tempted to question if he really meant it after the devastating defeat in the war for Kuwait.

Saddam's birthday this year was mentioned in state-run Iraqi newspapers, despite the catastrophe that has befallen his nation after bloody revolts by Kurdish rebels in the north and Shiites in the south, estimated to have cost tens of thousands of Iraqi lives on top of the up to 100,000 casualties in the Kuwait campaign.

The most Iraqi authorities could come up with to bring some joy to their people on Saddam's birthday was to allow motorists more gasoline coupons and promise those who wanted to get out the war-battered nation that they would be able to do so legally beginning May 15.

What the Iraqi authorities didn't say was that very few Iraqis have the foreign currency to go abroad, and the official exchange rate for the Iraqi currency has reached its lowest level under Saddam's ruling Baathists in the history of the Arab nation.