Gulf oil slick may force Iraq to seek peace

A giant oil spill from Iran's offshore Nowruz oil field offers perhaps the most immediate and compelling reason to end the war between Iran and Iraq. The spreading slick could threaten the economies of the Gulf countries which are helping finance the Iraqi war effort.

Ironically, Iraq caused the oil spill in bombing raids during the last few months. The raids were aimed at reducing Iran's revenues from oil exports.

The spill, two to five miles wide and approximately 250 miles long, threatens water desalination plants, fisheries and shipping along the whole Gulf coast.

Yet attempts to combat the spill and cap the two leaking Iranian oil wells are foundering on the diametrically opposed political objectives of the two belligerent parties.

Iran, by rejecting calls for a ceasefire to allow the well to be capped, is attempting to drive a wedge between Iraq and the Gulf states. The Islamic republic's strategy may have a chance of success.

Unlike the Gulf states, Iran has a relatively unpopulated coast and therefore faces less risk from the oil spill.

Analysts in Kuwait believe that only if the oil spill begins to threaten Iran's Kharg Island oil terminal, which plays a major role in Iranian oil exports - or if the Gulf states make a goodwill gesture towards the Islamic republic - will Iran allow that steps be taken to combat the spill.

For the other Gulf countries, however, the threat is much more immediate and worrisome. Once the oil spill is blown ashore, oil experts believe, Gulf cities will suffer major disruptions as a result of the forced closure of combined desalination and power-generation plants which form the base for almost all electricity, drinking water, sanitation, and air-conditioning.

Moreover, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, most Gulf states have demonstrated an increasing lack of enthusiasm in footing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's war bill.Kuwait, according to well-informed sources, stopped war payments to Iraq more than a year ago.

Sources in Kuwait add that Iraq's posture has proven to be a ''focal point of irritation'' during the negotiations aimed at clearing the way for experts to cap the leaking Iranian oil wells.

Said a senior Kuwaiti official: ''The Iraqis were fools to start this war in the first place. Now they are trying to find a way out of it at our expense.''

Foreign ministers of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrein, Qatar, and Oman - met in emergency session April 16 following the failure of attempts to reconvene a ''technical'' meeting of the Gulf Mutual Aid Emergency Center.

The center was established four years ago by the GCC members and both Iran and Iraq to cope with disasters such as the Iranian oil spill.

Numerous American and European experts are standing by, condemned to inactivity, while an estimated 2,000 barrels a day flow into the open sea from the Nowruz field which is located in the middle of the war zone.

Their expertise cannot be utilized without a ceasefire which would allow them to enter the combat zone where an ''oilberg'' is forming from tens of thousands of tons of partly submerged heavy oil.

Saudi Arabia has already been forced to close a desalination plant drawing water from areas of the Gulf affected by the slick. The kingdom has also stopped fishing in polluted areas.

Along the whole Gulf coast, from Saudi Arabia to the Straits of Hormuz, workmen have been ringing the shore with floating plastic booms in an effort to seal off the intake valves of the desalination plants.

Yet despite the increasing danger to the livelihood of the Gulf states, both Iran and Iraq appear to give priority to their respective strategic goals.

The two combatants - both of whom suffer little exposure to the spill - are banking on the fact that their refusal to cooperate will force the Gulf states to take decisive political action which could influence the course and the outcome of the Gulf war.

Iraq hopes the increasing threat will move the Gulf states to call for a broad ceasefire in the war it began 21/2 years ago and now so badly wants to end. A United Nations role in supervising a truce around the offshore oil wells could, according to Iraqi officials, serve as a starting point for an overall ceasefire.

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