Baghdad, Iraq — Seventeen years after axing formal diplomatic ties with the United States, an embattled Iraq wants improved relations. Things have been moving slowly in this direction for a long time - indeed, since a year or so before the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980.
But since spring of 1983 there has been a series of high-level Iraqi-US meetings unprecedented since the formal break in ties, including an encounter last fall between Iraq's foreign minister, Tareq Aziz, and US Secretary of State George Shultz.
Diplomats here have noted new signs in recent days of Iraq's desire to improve ties with the US, despite a recent rechilling over the issue of alleged Iraqi use of chemical weapons in the Persian Gulf war.
One such signal has been Iraq's strongly repeated interest in US help on building a strategically key oil pipeline.
Another related signal was more atmospheric, but also seen as significant. This was the surprise decision of three senior Iraqi officials - First Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yassin, Foreign Minister Aziz, and Oil Minister Qassem Ahmed Taqi - to receive a lower-ranking US Senate delegation here for the past few days.
Nothing like outright ''friendship'' between Baghdad and Washington is in sight, despite such signals.
Indeed, so far, the Iraqis don't even want the return of a full-scale US embassy. They are perfectly happy dealing with the active, American-staffed ''interest section'' nominally attached to the Belgian mission - a US embassy in everything but name.
Iraq's gradual move to better ties with the US also comes amid an even sharper upturn in relations with Moscow - and especially chummy ties in Europe, with the French. The Soviets and the French are Iraq's major arms sources these days. The international balancing act is seen as reflecting the tough pragmatism of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whether in dealings with Washington, Moscow, or Paris.
The bid for improved ties with the US seems based on a cool appraisal of the countries' shared interests rather than on the scoldingly revolutionary, and anti-Israeli, rhetoric still surviving here nearly 20 years after Iraq broke ties with Washington over its support for Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
One US interest is to dilute Soviet influence in Iraq. President Hussein is said to have long harbored his own doubts about too close an embrace with Moscow , despite a formal friendship pact between Iraq and the USSR in 1972.
And given Iraq's oil wealth and historical political role in the Arab world, the Americans themselves would like to be on improved terms with Baghdad when it finally emerges from the sapping war with Iran.
Against this background, the US Export-Import Bank has been moving unmistakably in the direction of ensuring credit for hefty American participation in the new Iraqi oil pipeline.
Iraq, for its part, hopes to benefit in several ways from an upturn in relations with the Americans.
The first is military. Iraq has been pressing the US to use its influence with various allies to stop arms supplies to Iran. The US, informed European diplomats say, has been trying to oblige.
The second area is political. The Iraqis want to make use of the Americans' international influence, notably with Israel on issues like ensuring against any attack on the new oil pipeline. The Iraqis have not forgotten Israel's air strike on their nuclear reactor three years ago.
A third kind of benefit would be economic. Iraq has undertaken an ambitious development program - though seriously slowed in the past year by the Gulf war - and values the potential addition of US technology.
Indeed, one element in Iraq's slightly more evenhanded approach to superpower relations even before the Gulf war was a sense that a previously close dependence on Moscow for development projects had netted Baghdad second-rate technology and expertise.
One more recent sign of gradually warmer Iraqi-US economic ties has been the participation of American firms beginning in 1982, in an annual state-sponsored Iraqi trade fair.
But given the forced reduction of Iraqi oil exports from the Gulf war, the issue of the day here is US help in building a new and defensible pipeline outlet via Jordan. This issue unites the military, economic, and political areas in which Iraq sees potential gain from entente with the US.
The importance Iraq attaches to the project was emphasized by the high-level reception given the US Senate group over the weekend.
''The delegation - staff members of the Foreign Relations Committee - is admittedly influential,'' a European diplomat notes.
''But in a nation so keenly conscious of protocol as is Iraq - and so interested as a rule in limiting contact with foreigners - the decision to receive the Americans at a level far higher than protocol dictates can have been met only as a conscious signal.''
A more general implication, a ranking diplomat suggests, was that although ''the relationship with the US still has ups and downs, the ups, for at least the time being, are higher than in the past. And the downs, like the Americans' criticism of chemical weapons use, seem to be lasting less long.''