Iraqi Leaders Struggle To Save Besieged Regime

Iraqi officials interviewed in Baghdad concede that political concessions - to the international community and to their own people - are key to survival

DESPITE spreading domestic unrest and its own continuing isolation, the Iraqi leadership is seeking "to reintegrate" the country into the international community without a change of regime. But, Iraqi officials here concede, the prospects of the regime's survival are meager without fundamental changes within the system - including a genuine democratization process and the adoption of a "flexible" foreign policy.

Officials say they are aware that the system's chances heavily depend on the readiness of the United States and its allies to end the political, military, and economic pressures on Iraq.

Three weeks after the unofficial cease-fire, some Iraqi officials conclude the US objective so far has been to weaken the regime and not necessarily to topple it.

The spread of predominantly Shiite unrest in the south and the reported Iranian backing of antigovernment violence have provoked serious concerns in Baghdad of unprecedented sectarian sedition, leading to an uncontrollable civil war.

Yet, some Iraqis say, the potential threat of a spread of Iranian-backed fundamentalism could also make the continuity of the regime crucial to the US as a way to stop Tehran's perceived drive to reassert itself as the major power broker in the Gulf.

"If the regime collapses, there will be a dangerous power vacuum leading to total destabilization and civil war. Iran will become stronger and perhaps uncontrollable," says an Iraqi analyst.

There is also a realization in official circles that a reintegration of Iraq into the international community will require major political concessions that might greatly curtail Baghdad's prewar regional role.

A major question raised within the leadership relates to the nature of the political concessions and whether Iraq will be permitted to pursue an independent and Arab nationalist policy.

For example, should Iraq agree to a United Nations-sponsored resolution to destroy its weapons, and if so, will that only be a prelude to demands for other major political concessions?

Some Iraqi officials agree that Baghdad will have to heed demands by the US and the international community, such as destruction of chemical weapons, to ensure the survival of the regime and a unified country.

They expect the US to postpone the lifting of international sanctions and to use them to extract further concessions, if not to step up popular pressures against the regime.

In his speech to the nation last week, President Saddam Hussein pledged to democratize the country, but also indicated that the leadership wants to maintain its position on Arab issues, including support for the Palestinian cause and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

In an article in Al Thawra, the ruling Baathist Party newspaper, Saadoun Hammadi, a senior aide to Saddam, suggested the government could survive without changing basic Arab nationalist policies. His article appeared to provide a glimpse of the internal political debate, indicating some officials feel Iraq's prewar spearheading of such issues would have to end to enable the country to be accepted by the international community.

"The government might and probably will accept the destruction of chemical weapons, but the concessions will not stop there. The US will ask Iraq to abandon its support of the Palestinians and the PLO," a source close to the government says.

The source predicted the leadership might be obliged to heed demands to drop support for groups accused of international terrorism, such as the Baghdad-based Palestine Liberation Front led by Abul Abbas.

Political observers in Baghdad expect Mr. Hammadi, who is considered as the Baathist Party's ideologue, to play a key role in the Cabinet Saddam has promised to form.

The other serious challenge facing the leadership is how to accommodate growing discontent. Well-placed officials say the leadership has three priorities: quelling unrest and violence in the northern Kurdish areas and southern predominantly Shiite areas; restoring normal life to an almost paralyzed country; and initiating a democratization process.

Officials argue that the first objective is crucial to normalization of life and production and to the democratization process. Some analysts, however, warn that the use of force might further erode the leadership's credibility in its commitment to liberal change.

"It is a very sensitive equation, but how can the government function if it does not stop armed violence?" asks an official.

The only alternative for the Iraqi leadership, officials agree, is immediately to begin the process of change by appointing credible figures and efficient technocrats to the new government proposed in Saddam's speech last week.

The changes are also expected to end the supremacy of the Revolutionary Command Council, which will be dissolved, giving more power to the executive branch. But even though Saddam is expected to appoint a prime minister - until now he has been the de facto prime minister - the extent of independence that will be allowed the executive branch remains unclear.

Another ambiguous point concerns political parties. In his speech, Saddam said political parties will be allowed, but did not clarify whether that includes exiled opposition groups. Some Iraqi political analysts believe that Saddam will be able to pull the carpet from under the feet of the opposition groups by inviting them back to Baghdad to participate in a pluralist system.

Officials concede that details of the political and domestic changes have not been worked out yet.

But as one official sums up the difficult task of the leadership: "We need to find a way to change the status quo without changing the system."

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