`Tanker war' takes on new intensity. In most active day of fighting, Iran sticks to safer targets

Yesterday, Iran struck back in what some observers are calling the most active day of fighting ever in the three-year ``tanker war'' between Iran and Iraq. After four days of Iraqi raids against Iranian tankers, oil facilities, and industrial sites, Iran responded with hit-and-run attacks throughout the Gulf Tuesday night and yesterday.

The escalation in fighting comes just ahead of a deadline set by the UN Security Council for Iranian acceptance of the UN cease-fire plan. United States officials say the Reagan administration is pressing Iraq hard to halt its renewed attacks in the Gulf.

Yesterday, five ships were hit in a flurry of raids launched by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and naval units operating in the northern, central, and southern Gulf. No injuries were reported. The attacks followed the pattern of Iran's earlier hit-and-run attacks using fast motor launches and small arms such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

In one attack, an Iranian patrol boat is reported to have fired a 4-inch shell into a Korean tanker off the southern Gulf city of Dubai. The four other attacks were carried out by Revolutionary Guards in small motor launches.

Diplomatic analysts say that Iran appears to have adopted a cautious retaliatory policy of singling out unprotected ships, rather than trying to directly hit heavily armed US warships or the tankers they are protecting.

The Iranian government, the analysts say, appears intent on avoiding a direct military confrontation with the US. Such a confrontation would almost certainly trigger massive US retaliation, something Iran wants to avoid, they say.

But some analysts say there is a possibility that a small group of Revolutionary Guards acting on their own initiative might attempt to strike at US warships.

Yet it is still unclear whether Iran will limit its retaliatory attacks to hit-and-run raids against shipping on the Arab side of the Gulf.

Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi was quoted yesterday by the Iranian news agency as saying Iran would respond ``blow by blow ... in a calculated fashion'' to Iraq's continuing attacks. The prime minister was also quoted as saying that Iraq couldn't have carried out its recent wide-ranging raids on Iranian targets in the southern Gulf without gaining access to air bases of Arab Gulf states.

``Such acts of mischief will not go unanswered,'' he said.

Iran has threatened in the past to launch direct attacks against Iraq's Arab Gulf allies to punish them for their support of Iraq in the war.

Meanwhile, Iraq continues its Gulf attacks, claiming jets hit two tankers in Iranian waters yesterday for a total of 11 tankers since Saturday.

More than 330 tankers and ships have been damaged by both countries since 1984, when fighting from the Iran-Iraq war spread to Gulf waters.

Iraq also continued air strikes against Iranian industrial and oil facilities, reportedly bombing two oil fields, a power station, and an arms factory in Iran.

The latest outbreak in the tanker war began last Saturday when Iraq broke a 45-day lull in attacks in Gulf waters launching an array of strikes at Iranian positions and oil facilities from Farisiyah Island in the north to Sirri Island in the south.

Iraq has defended its resumption of attacks saying that Iran was stalling rather than accepting the terms of the recent United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in the seven-year-old Gulf war.

Iraq has been criticized by the US and Britain for renewing its attacks at a time when Iran appeared to be sending positive signals in diplomatic circles regarding possible UN mediated negotiations to end the war.

Iraqi leaders have said that Iran was not interested in peace and was taking advantage of Iraq's goodwill in temporarily halting its Gulf attacks.

The Iraqi leaders say that Iran was using the temporary cease-fire in Gulf waters to step up oil exports to earn more money to rearm for a major offensive in the near future.

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