Iraq threatens to intensify Gulf tanker war

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Iraq, having suddenly shifted the Gulf war momentum in its favor, is threatening to raise the stakes further if Iran goes through with a long-expected ground offensive.

A lengthy article Thursday in the newspaper of Iraq's ruling Baath Party vowed destruction of Iran's main oil-export facility, on Kharg Island in the Gulf, if the Iranians didn't call off any plans for such an offensive and agree to a negotiated resolution of the nearly four-year-old war.

The newspaper said Iraq would meanwhile tighten its ''blockade'' of Kharg Island - implying further air strikes on any tankers attempting to approach Kharg to load Iranian crude.

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Western analysts were divided on whether Baghdad has the operational capability to follow through on the threat to destroy Kharg Island.

The Iraqis took delivery last year of new French warplanes and air-to-surface missiles.

In an interview published last week, Iraq's President Saddam Hussein confirmed renewed arms supplies from Moscow - which some Western analysts speculate could include new Soviet SS-21 rockets.

But some analysts questioned Iraq's ability to mount a sufficiently accurate or large-scale strike to put the well-defended Kharg facility out of action altogether.

Still, even without ''destroying'' Kharg Island, the Iraqis have in the past few weeks managed to curtail Iranian oil exports severely.

This has resulted from a combination of heightened international insurance rates and shippers' reluctance to venture near Kharg.

A report from Tokyo Thursday said Iran was now offering its oil at $2.50 below the posted price of $28 per barrel.

And there have been increasing signs in the past few days of political and economic fallout from the Iraqi escalation on Arab states, both those friendly to Iraq and those less so.

The minimum message in Thursday's Iraqi newspaper announcement was that Baghdad was intent on sustaining these pressures until Iran agrees to an acceptable negotiated resolution of the war.

The message seemed intended for at least three separate audiences:

* Iranians, for whom oil earnings are a key contributor to funding the war.

* Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other nearby Arab oil states. These countries, which have been bankrolling Iraq's war effort, are also profoundly anxious to avoid further spillover from the Iraq-Iran conflict near their shores. The Saudis have just taken delivery on shoulder-fired US Stinger missiles in hopes of heading off further Iranian air strikes on tankers. Reports from Washington say that Kuwait, too, has informally asked for similar weapons.

* Syrians. Syria, a bitter rival of Iraq, has bucked virtually the rest of the Arab world by backing Iran in the war. Partly in return for Iranian oil at discount prices, Syria has shut down a pipeline that used to export Iraqi oil over Syrian soil.

But a series of Syrian-Iranian oil meetings in the past few weeks has underscored the potentially major complication in the relationship from sharply reduced Iranian crude exports.

Reporting one such meeting last week in Damascus, the official Syrian news agency said it had touched on ''oil cooperating'' and had weighed ''measures that should be taken in light of the current circumstances in the Gulf resulting from the Iraq-Iran war.''

The report did not say what these ''measures'' were.

Still, there has been no visible sign, at least so far, that the recent war developments have sent Iran's regime scampering for a quick, negotiated end to the conflict.

It was Iraq that invaded Iran in 1980. The Iraqis lost the use of their own relatively small Gulf coast for oil export early on. Meanwhile, Iran gradually overturned Iraqi gains on the ground, finally pushing into Iraqi territory in 1983.

Western officials have continued to predict that Iran will launch a major new ground offensive on Iraqi frontier areas - possibly coinciding with the start this weekend of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Previous such offensives have resulted in small Iranian gains, stopping short of a definitive victory against the Iraqis.

But they have exerted ever-more-serious strains on the Iraqi economy.

Telegraphing Thursday's Iraqi pledge to keep up the new pressure on Iran's oil exports, an official Iraqi newspaper editorial last Wednesday declared that the ground war and more recent Iraqi-prodded ''tanker war'' were ''inseparable.''

''Those who believe that they can halt the tanker war while sustaining the . . . war between Iraq and Iran will be disappointed,'' the newspaper said.

In plain English, the Iraqis' message seems to be that Baghdad is intent on doing all it can to keep the tanker war aboil until the Iranians deliver an overall negotiated resolution of the conflict on terms acceptable to Iraq.

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