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In Baghdad, Disillusioned Iraqis Still Await Answers


THREE weeks after the cease-fire, residents of Baghdad remain in a state of shock and confusion about the future of their devastated country. But there are no signs so far that the capital will take part in the rebellion in the north and the south of the country. Except for a few incidents, mainly in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods, Baghdad has not seen violent antigovernment protests. The capital is the center for Iraq's intellectuals and veteran politicians.

One reason is the Army's strong grip on the capital. Aware of a potential threat of armed unrest, the government promptly collected hundreds of thousands of arms, mostly machine guns, which were distributed to the population during the war.

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In some areas, the Army had had to conduct house-to-house searches for arms, while eyewitnesses said that calls on the people to turn over their arms were heard from loudspeakers in some neighborhoods.

But judging from interviews with residents, the silent anger of Baghdad also reflects the state of confusion in the country since the end of the war.

``The country has lost its balance. Some Iraqis feel that they can barely think,'' said a university professor.

Baghdad, which has been known historically for leading antigovernment revolts, has also not moved because many people do not see a practical alternative to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Many Iraqis interviewed seemed to be taken aback by the violent rebellion in the south and the north. If they were thinking of a revolution, the intellectuals, at least, could not identify with the predominantly Shiite dissent

in the south and the Kurdish rebellion in the north.

``The violence in the south and the north provided Saddam with the opportunity to appeal for his people's support against sectarian dissent and foreign intervention, while it gave the Iraqis in Baghdad a chance to seriously reflect on the future instead of acting upon impulse,'' said the university professor.

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In the words of a Baathist analyst, the fear of Shiite sectarian violence has temporary brought the Sunnis and the Baathists together - therefore the regime and Saddam appear to be the only safety valve in the immediate future.

The leadership has so far benefited from the fact that the opposition abroad does not have the needed credibility to lead the Iraqis, because of foreign links, Iranian connections, and lack of grass-roots organization.

``We know that the people would prefer a nationalist government to one with foreign links, but we cannot take this for granted if frustration and anger reach the point of explosion. For if people are driven to despair, they will follow any leader who might deliver and save them from their difficult living conditions,'' commented a well-placed Baathist.

Officials in the government concede that the outcome of the war has widened the gulf between the leadership and the people and that it will be extremely difficult to restore the leadership's credibility.

Officials are also aware that the defeat has pushed to the surface all of the shortcomings of the regime and its record of repression.

``It is [Saddam's] fault, he did not give a breathing space, and instead he has alienated many decent and qualified intellectuals,'' said an Iraqi artist.

Immediately after the abrupt withdrawal from Kuwait, tension in Baghdad appeared to be reaching a simmering point. For despite the initial celebrations - shooting in the air - Iraqis in Baghdad did not conceal their frustration at what they viewed as a humiliating pullout of the troops from Kuwait.

``He should not have ordered a withdrawal now. This looks like a defeat. It is very humiliating,'' said a young Iraqi white cheese vendor in the souk a few hours after the pullout order.

In some neighborhoods, some portraits of Saddam were tarnished with red paint and eggs.

Iraqi opponents of Saddam argue that the most catastrophic outcome of the war was that the US has achieved its goal of destroying and weakening Iraq.

``Saddam had made us feel proud of being Iraqis after the Iraqi-Iranian war and when he emerged as the most popular leader in the Arab world,'' said a physician. ``Why did he allow the US and others to lure us into the Kuwait trap and humiliate us like that?''

Although many Iraqis in Baghdad, interviewed before the war, said that they did not support the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, many are now arguing that Saddam should have either withdrawn long before he did or he should have continued to fight to the end.

What torments many in Baghdad is that the leadership, including Saddam, has not said a word to explain the timing of the withdrawal, giving way to speculation about treachery among Saddam's aides and other similar stories.

A soldier interviewed after he came back to Baghdad from Kuwait, said morale was completely shaken once soldiers heard that Saddam had accepted the Soviet initiative, which involved an Iraqi withdrawal.

``I and others felt that if he was withdrawing anyhow, why should we die here,'' the young soldier said. ``But it would have been even better if he had ordered an immediate pullout then and not after the beginning of the ground assault ... we were already confused.''

Many Iraqis feel let down by the leadership.

Promises for democratization - unless accompanied by swift practical measures - will not be enough to heal the wound of the injured pride of a historically fighting nation, analysts here say.

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