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Saddam Seeks to Consolidate Home Front

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AN uneasy atmosphere of expectation prevailed in Baghdad Thursday. Iraqis were aware that the next day - if not the next few hours - would be decisive in determining the course of war or peace. The Iraqi leadership's announcement Tuesday that it was studying a Soviet peace proposal provided hope for Iraqis that their suffering might soon be over. But they are also aware that coalition forces are poised for a ground assault and that prospects for a cease-fire may be a mirage.

The Iraqi news media's reference to the Soviet proposal was reported prominently but in noncomittal fashion. It said Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz would return to Moscow with a response. At press time, Iraqis were awaiting an announced broadcast to the nation and Muslim world from President Saddam Hussien.

``People are full of hope,'' said Nouri, an Iraqi taxi driver. Markets were open, while vendors set up food stalls along the sidewalks. Except for fuel and medicine, most items were available, although very expensive.

Without electricity and running water, life has become very difficult for Iraqis. But, they say, the hardest part is the feeling that civilian areas are not safe. This concern was reinforced last week when coalition forces bombed a public shelter killing hundreds of people. The Pentagon said the facility was a military bunker, but citizens in Baghdad were not willing to accept this explanation.

``This is nonsense. They are liars. Why are they bombarding Baghdad anyway? Why are they shelling civilians? Why do they not fight at the battle front?'' asks Taleb Abbas, who lost nine family members in the bombing.

The Iraqi leadership seems to be aware of the mood. Over the past 72 hours, the state-run media have tried to prepare the public for major sacrifices. Commentaries in newspapers and on radio are aimed at readying the population for the toughest round of the battle yet: the ground assault.

``We are approaching the mother of all battles,'' said an editorial in al-Thawra newspaper Tuesday.

The editorials also aimed at boosting morale. ``A strong Iraq is awaiting them [the coalition forces] in the battlefield,'' said yesterday's al-Jumhuriyya daily.

People on the street say they are ready for the ground war, which they believe offers a chance to fight their enemies face to face. At the same time, they concede that the continual aerial bombardment is disrupting lives, and they worry about its effect on their children.

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