BAGHDAD, IRAQ — 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.
``My three-year-old boy clutches me in panic when the raids start. I am concerned about him. Our children are very disturbed and cannot sleep,'' says Saad, an Iraqi engineer.
Some Iraqis argue that the leadership is in a good position to take a conciliatory stand now that it has proved Iraqi forces can hold out and not be crushed in a few days, as some Western military experts had predicted. But they say it is unlikely Iraq will accept a humiliating peace.
Details of the Soviet proposal were not available here. But Iraqis have heard unconfirmed reports on Radio Monte Carlo that the proposal involves an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, followed by a pullout of coalition forces from the Gulf region.
The proposal also purportedly guarantees Iraq's security, territorial sovereignty, and economic and security interests in the region.
Arab analysts here say such an outline would be acceptable to the Iraqi government, especially if the Soviets succeed in establishing linkage, at least in principle, between the Gulf crisis and other regional conflicts, particularly the Palestinian problem.
The question being raised here, however, is whether such a proposal would be acceptable to the United States.
Iraqis have been encouraged by positive responses to the Soviet proposal from some European governments. But Iraq is no longer ready to place hopes on breaking the US-led alliance against it, informed sources say.
A well-connected Iraqi source says Baghdad will try to be flexible for two reasons:
To prove to its people that it has given peace a chance when asking them to make big sacrifices.
To give the Soviet Union and Iran, which have emerged as the principle mediators and guarantors, a formula to pressure the US to accept a negotiated solution.
Baghdad is cautious not to appear to be the party torpedoing peace efforts, says an Arab diplomat. The leadership is now giving priority to consolidating its home front rather than to political maneuvers on the international front, he says.
``The leadership has learned that its best bet is to keep its people prepared and not depend heavily on either Arab support or dramatic shifts in the position of European countries and the international community,'' says a Baathist Party official.