BAGHDAD, IRAQ — IRAQIS braced themselves yesterday for a new missile attack, as government officials appeared resigned to the prospect of a US raid in retaliation for their obstruction of United Nations weapons inspectors.
"If the other side refuses a dialogue" on the two controversial missile testing sites, "we expect another attack," Saadi Mehdi Saleh, the Iraqi parliament speaker, said yesterday.
By insisting on sealing testing equipment on Sunday, UN inspectors "were asking us to do something we cannot accept, and sometimes you have to suffer for that," added Iraqi Oil Minister Usama al-Hitti. The UN effort to make the equipment inaccessible was meant to ensure Iraqi compliance in banning construction of long-range missiles.
As the UN Security Council prepared to meet yesterday to hear the inspectors' report on their aborted mission, Iraqi officials were disconcerted by the UN's refusal to discuss their compromise proposal, which they had hoped would make sealing the missile sites unnecessary.
It was clear from the letter that Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf sent Sunday to the president of the Security Council, that Baghdad had not expected inspector Mark Silver to try to seal the sites before negotiating the last-minute Iraqi offer to make all the testing equipment accessible to UN officials in another place.
Now many Iraqis worry that the UN's patience has been stretched to the limit by what it sees as two years of Iraq's prevarication and obstruction of UN efforts to dismantle its arsenals.
"With news like this, everyone is worried," said one Iraqi official after Mr. Silver left Baghdad abruptly, having failed to seal the Al-Rafah and Al Yawm Al-Azim sites.
At the root of the current standoff and previous similar incidents, say diplomats and Iraqi officials, is Baghdad's determination to behave as an equal negotiating partner with the UN, arguing every point.
This attitude contrasts starkly with the Western view of Iraq as a defeated aggressor on which unconditional demands - expressed in UN resolutions - can legitimately be made.
"The government finds it very hard to accept a real defeat in 1991," explains one Iraqi intellectual. "They want to do the minimum to comply with UN resolutions."
"Did the Gulf war end in a cease-fire or a defeat?" Mr. Hitti asks, rhetorically. "In a cease-fire. I don't think we should forget our principles, that we are a nation, a country, and allow inspectors driven by the enemies of Iraq to do what they want."
Some diplomats are sympathetic. "Inspectors come here as if Iraq was completely razed, as if there was no government, nothing. It is very humiliating," one senior Arab envoy says.
The Iraqi government's resentment of the 60 inspection teams that have visited the country since the end of the war is compounded by its sense that UN actions are effectively decided by the world body's most powerful member, the United States.
"If the UN always wants to choose methods and forms on instructions from the US, peace is impossible," Mr. Saleh charges.
Since the two missile sites at the center of the current controversy are used to test rockets with a range of less than 90 miles, which are permitted by UN Resolution 687, Iraqi officials say there is no need to seal them. They also worry that if they give in, UN inspectors could demand to seal other facilities that are not prohibited.
The government brushes aside Western concerns that some factories and other installations might be used in the future for banned activities, and should thus be open to monitoring. "They can say anything could be used" for military purposes, Hitti complains. "Where does it end?"
The UN special commission charged with dismantling Iraq's armory, however, is unwilling to trust Baghdad. An Iraqi proposal to begin broad talks yesterday with UN officials in New York, to assess how much more Iraq needs to do before international sanctions are lifted, has apparently been shelved, pending a resolution of the current crisis.
With no end for sanctions in sight, says one diplomat, "Iraq has nothing to lose by playing brinkmanship. There is no carrot, only a stick, and apart from more missile attacks, what can the West do against Iraq that it hasn't already done?"
Meanwhile, many sensitive factories that might be targeted in a new missile attack have been dismantled as a protective measure, according to diplomats here, and ordinary Iraqis are stocking up on food in anticipation of a raid.
On the streets of Baghdad, one rumor has gained widespread currency: that the attack will come next Saturday, July 17, the 25th anniversary of the revolution that brought President Saddam Hussein's Arab Baath Socialist Party to power.