Iraqis See Bitter Loss of National Integrity

Cease-fire signals prospect of unlimited concessions, national fragmentation

FOR the Iraqi people, shattered by war and internal strife, the UN Security Council cease-fire plan sparked a glimmer of hope that life would return to normal. Yet many Iraqis feel it will be at the expense of the country's independence and integrity. "This is extremely humiliating and painful. We no longer have control of our destiny," says an Iraqi literary critic who preferred anonymity.

For officials and ordinary people alike, acceptance of the cease-fire plan amounted to a political capitulation which has only heightened the sense of defeat resulting from the war.

"The worst part is that we do not know where the concessions will stop," says an official of the ruling Baath Party.

Iraqis seemed particularly disturbed by the fact that the cease-fire plan, finalized April 13, fell short of effecting an end to the hostilities. The practical implications of this shortcoming - as viewed in Baghdad - is that the UN, but primarily the United States, can exploit this implied uncertainty and keep up pressure on the government as a means of interfering in the internal affairs of the country.

For ordinary Iraqis, the prospect of renewed hostilities is unbearable. Baghdad decisionmakers seem to be aware of this mood, which makes the government more vulnerable to external pressures.

"People have had enough. We cannot push them any further," says a government official, partly reflecting government fears of another violent outburst of popular discontent.

The war and the destruction have dramatically reduced people to struggling for survival. But Iraqis interviewed did not conceal their shock at having to accept Iraq's transformation from a major aspiring political and military power to a dependent, powerless state that has to accommodate demands of its neighbors.

The cease-fire's provisions about limiting Iraqi military power and access to technology, and redrawing Iraq's borders with Kuwait represent to many the realization of the Western goals that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had claimed he was seeking to thwart by challenging Western interests in the region.

"This is incredible. I thought we went to war and sacrificed our sons' lives to defend Iraq's right to have access to technology and to develop it itself," says a young university researcher.

Iraqi newspapers, which uncharacteristically published the full details of the plan, continue to attack the provisions which are seen to be aimed at containing and crippling Iraq.

The closed National Assembly session, which approved the cease-fire plan, turned into a heated debate. But as Saadi Mehdi Saleh, speaker of the National Assembly, put it at the opening of the session, Iraqis simply had "no choice."

But some officials and analysts say that by accepting the cease-fire plan, the Iraqi leadership has bought time to start reconstruction and embark on political reforms that will eventually ease international restrictions on Baghdad. The danger, officials admit, is that by then the Baathist government will have lost its independence.

"We really do not have space for maneuver, but we are resisting turning into just another American puppet in the region," says an official.

Baghdad's acceptance of the plan has been received with cynicism. Many cannot accept the shift from a rejectionist state to submission. "We leapt from 'No, No, No' to an indefinite 'Yes,' " says a university professor.

Acceptance of the plan seems to have further eroded the leadership's credibility. But at this stage, most people are more concerned about daily survival than philosophical arguments about lost dignity.

"We have suffered enough. We are grateful that we are still alive," says a novelist.

But the cease-fire has not eliminated official, or even public, fears that the country might be divided, especially after the armed rebellions in the Kurdish north and Shiite south.

Officials fear that the West and Iran will exploit the lingering discontent in the north and south and the tragedy of thousands of refugees to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq as a prelude to fragmenting the country.

The massive airlift of US aid to thousands of Kurdish refugees is viewed as a political tool to deepened the split between Baghdad and the Kurds.

But as one official admits, the government cannot stop it, and it does not have the means to replace US aid.

"It's ironic, for regardless of Washington's political aims, it is helping the government practically. We simply do not have sufficient means to help all of the refugees," says an official.

The same applies to the south, where the US Army has reportedly distributed food to Iraqis in the areas it was holding. Although the government welcomes the US withdrawal, there are concerns that Tehran will seize the opportunity to fuel unrest in the predominantly Shiite south.

"Tehran might use the refugees' plight in the south to cross the borders under the pretext of feeding the starving refugees," says a writer close to the regime.

But the government still believes that the US is not really interested in geographically tearing up Iraq, particularly if it resulted in a stronger Iran and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

"We do not think that Washington will approve the geographic division of Iraq.... But it might be interested in deepening sectarian and ethnic friction to maintain a weak central government in Baghdad," the Iraqi official says.

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