Iraqi envoy says Iran is `overconfident'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a sea of doubters, Nizar Hamdoon is an island of confidence. Waving aside mounting US concerns, Iraq's ambassador to Washington says his country is holding its own in its six-year war against Iran. Responding to jittery military analysts, he says Iraq is ready for any new offensive Iran may have in mind.

Military experts say Iran is finalizing plans to launch a major, possibly decisive assault at points along the 700-mile Iran-Iraq border.

``We're large enough to face any possibility along a number of fronts,'' Mr. Hamdoon said in a Monitor interview. ``Now we have more expertise in facing their human waves and facing them in the marshes as well as in the flat terrain.'' Iran's current overconfidence, adds the Iraqi ambassador, ``could lead to disaster.''

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Hamdoon insists the Gulf war, which this month enters its seventh year, should be a higher priority for the Reagan administration and that the United States and the Soviet Union should put ``more political pressure'' on their allies to restrain the flow of arms to Iran.

``This is what's unique about the situation,'' says Hamdoon, ``that the Soviets and the United States agree and have things to benefit if peace is to prevail.'' The ambassador says the interest of both superpowers lies in preserving the political and territorial status quo in the Persian Gulf.

``I don't believe that any power in the world should be neutral on the war,'' notes Hamdoon, a Baghdad architect who is in Washington on his first diplomatic assignment for the Iraqi government. ``I don't think it's fair to be evenhanded with the two parties when one of them is calling for war while one of them is calling for peace.''

Once seen as a regional border conflict, the Iran-Iraq war has become the costliest war of attrition since World War II, producing hundreds of thousands of casualties on each side.

In recent comments, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy said Iranian military successes, including the capture of Iraqi territory on the Faw peninsula, have given Tehran the ``psychological edge'' in the war, despite Iraq's overwhelming superiority in air power.

Hamdoon, responding to charges that Iraq has failed to use its technical edge to good advantage, said:

``If we look at the war overall, I feel that Iraq's performance has been sound. When the war started, Iran had superiority in the air but they didn't use their Air Force wisely. We don't want to get into the same situation. This war could possibly drag on for five or 10 years. So there's no wisdom in losing our Air Force.''

Last month the Iraqi Air Force, strengthened by the acquisition of about 50 long-range French Mirage F-l fighter bombers, scored a major success by attacking the Iranian oil terminal at Sirri Island, 150 miles from the Strait of Hormuz. Analysts say the attacks demonstrate that none of Iran's oil export outlets -- critical to generating the revenues needed to sustain the war against Iraq -- are now out of range of Iraqi pilots. Although Iranian oil is still getting through to the world market, export levels have dropped from 1.8 million to 1 million barrels a day since the war began.

``To cut them down to a million, this is success,'' the ambassador says.

In other comments, Hamdoon said last month's decision by the Soviet Union to make a major purchase of Iranian natural gas does not portend a political rapprochement between the two estranged neighbors. Since taking control of Iran in 1979, the government of Ayatollah Khomeini has eschewed good relations with both superpowers. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union has become the largest supplier of arms to Iraq.

``The Iranians cannot express their readiness politically to have a rapprochement with the Soviets because this is contrary to the design of being non-West and non-East,'' says Hamdoon. ``If the Iranians are to change this kind of doctrine, this will have an impact on their popularity inside the country. Therefore, there will be no major breakthrough [in relations between the two countries].''

Hamdoon says the key to any early conclusion to the Iran-Iraq war will be a major defeat, which he defines in terms of blunting any Iranian offensive into Iraq. Such a setback, he says, will be decisive by catalyzing the growing political opposition in a country beset by spiraling unemployment, a collapsing gross national product, and critical food shortages.

In the meantime, he says, his country remains ready to negotiate with the Khomeini government. Hamdoon says the first principle of any future peace settlement is noninterference in the affairs of Iraq.

More difficult could be the task of deciding where the postwar boundaries between the two countries should be drawn.

The war started when Iraq, in violation of a 1975 agreement with Iran, seized the Iranian half of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Hamdoon declined to speculate whether Iraq would agree to lines drawn in 1975 as the basis for a postwar peace settlement.

``It's difficult till you get to the negotiating table to see exactly where the lines should be drawn,'' he says.

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