Brussels — The Iraqis are trying hard, it seems, to deter Iran from launching its long-anticipated ground offensive. On Tuesday, Iraq reportedly bombarded the northern Iranian border town of Baneh, killing between 200 and 300 people. After the attack, the Iranians announced they plan to bomb 11 Iraqi towns today in retaliation.
The Saudis, who are backing Iraq in the war, said Tuesday they shot down an aircraft, believed to be Iranian, that had entered air space over Saudi waters.
Fighting on the ground has also reportedly escalated along the 700-mile Iran-Iraq border. Tehran radio reported artillery exchanges as far as 50 miles inside Iranian territory Tuesday near Sanandaj and Qasr e Shirin toward the north, and along the southern Shatt al Arab Waterway.
Baghdad radio reported that Iraqi soldiers had intercepted small groups of Iranian fighters trying to infiltrate behind their lines in the marshy area north of Basra, Iraq's southern port. But, at time of writing, neither side had mentioned significant troop movements.
Foreign diplomats contacted in Tehran say the fighting may be a prelude to a widescale offensive. They say the Iranians may already have begun their push, though on a limited scale. Both Iran and Iraq would probably be reluctant to announce the fighting before achieving at least a limited victory, the diplomats add.
In Washington, State Department officials said they had picked up a message Monday from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini to his troops saying that Tuesday ''might be an epic day.'' An aide to the Ayatollah contacted in Tehran acknowledged the message, but insisted it was not related to the war.
Tuesday was a holiday in Iran, marking the 21st anniversary of the 1963 uprising against the imperial regime. Foreign diplomats in Tehran thought the Iranians might be tempted, as they have often done in the past, to start a big offensive on a holiday. Many diplomats say the Iranians will once again try to surround Basra in southern Iraq. But others say they will try to pierce Iraqi lines further north, near the Iraqi town of Mandali or in Iraq's northern Kurdistan province.
All foreign diplomats contacted agree an Iranian land attack is the likely response to Iraq's recent bombing of oil tankers near Iran's main oil terminal on Kharg Island. The latest attack, on the Turkish-registered Buyuk Hun, came Sunday. On Tuesday the Iraqi minister of information, Latif Nassif Jassim, said his country would react to a ground attack by destroying terminals on Kharg.
Western diplomats also say they have received conflicting reports about the situation at Kharg Island loading facilities. But most of them say that, in spite of renewed Iraqi air raids, Iranian exports have not dropped by more than 50 percent.
''The Iranians have made contact with their major trading partners, urging them to fetch oil at Kharg Island,'' these diplomats add.
The Japanese reportedly have agreed to continue to buy Iranian oil, but will use shipping lines from third-world countries to transport it.