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June 5, 1981



All but forgotten in the flurry of developments in the Middle East is the fleet of merchant ships trapped between Iraq and Iran. The ships -- 63 of them, representing 23 countries -- were caught in the Shatt al Arab waterway when the war between the two countries broke out last September.

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The ships are still there -- rusting and defenseless, some of them long since abandoned. In several cases, only caretaker crews remain aboard. Many have been shelled or strafed by the warring sides. Four have been gutted by fire.

The ships could be freed if both sides simply agreed to let them sail away. But that agreement has not been forthcoming, despi te repeated attempts to reach it.m