WASHINGTON — IF anyone didn't know it, Baghdad is back in the Middle East's game of nations. In Lebanon, it has been playing out its long rivalry with Syria and trying to punish Damascus for siding with Iran during the Gulf war. Iraq quickly saw an opportunity this year to hurt Syria by supplying the defiant Christian forces with captured Iranian arms and more recently with Soviet-built artillery and tanks.
But, the breaking point for Syria was shipment of Soviet-built Frog missiles, which would have allowed the Christians to hit Damascus. ``This was more than a pretext for the Syrians,'' says a ranking US diplomat. ``Missiles are a very powerful psychological weapon. One or two missiles falling on Damascus would be a real humiliation,'' he says.
Under significant international pressure, Iraq has pledged restraint and reportedly recalled the missiles. Most specialists here think Iraq has no desire to go to war with Syria, but will to do what it can short of that to make Syria pay for its alliance with Iran.
This incident underlines Iraq's potential influence in the region. Though it suffered greatly from the war with Iran, Iraq emerged with a large battle-tested army, a chemical-weapons capability, and a rudimentary missile program. Specialists here agree that Iraq has the best potential of any country in the region to emerge as a well-balanced modern nation. It has proven oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia's, other natural resources including fertile farming areas, and a large, secular, and fairly well-educated population.
Despite its vendetta against Syria, Iraq also emerged from war with a much more pragmatic policy orientation. Iraq's leadership remains ``tough-minded'' says one official, but it is less ideological and is aligning itself with moderates, such as Jordan and Egypt.
``The Baath Revolution is half dead'' in Iraq, Prof. Amatzia Baram told a seminar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Friday. This renown Israeli specialist on Iraq says President Saddam Hussein is moving toward a more traditional type of regime and is searching for new ways to run the country and to protect Iraq from Iran.
This is evident in Iraq's support for Yasser Arafat's new moderation, he and others say, as well as in Iraq's strong desire to strengthen economic ties to the West.
Few specialists here think the move to pragmatism is complete. ``Iraq is eager to be pragmatic,'' says a US businessman who recently returned from Baghdad. ``But standing in the way is a long-term habit of secrecy and a great suspicion of outsiders. Iraq has, after all, been closed in on itself for over a decade.''
``Many in Israel fear Iraq is planning one day to lead a million soldiers across Jordan to Israel,'' says an informed US official. ``Jordanian and Egyptian officials will tell you Iraqis now want to become a nation of shopkeepers. The truth is somewhere in between. It wants prestige and power in the region; it wants to develop economically, and it wants strategic depth against Iran.''
The challenge for the US is to develop a sustainable relationship with Iraq that helps tie it to the pragmatic trend, he and others say, within the limits imposed by serious Iraqi abuses of human rights and the still-lingering chemical weapons issue. US officials think there is room to begin a dialogue here, but they have no illusions that it will be easy.