New trouble for Iran as Iraq threatens its western border

Even as a curt message from Ayatollah Khomeini dashed hopes for easing the hostage crisis and prompted retaliatory sanctions from President Carter, another crisis blew up on Iran's western front -- with Iraq.

Ayatollah Khomeini's statement, interrupting Tehran radio's afternoon newscast, said the 50 American Embassy hostages should stay in the hands of their militant student captors until a yet-to-be-elected parliament can decide their fate. Iranian officials have indicated that such a decision would not come before June and could take even longer.

There was only one small consolation: The statement said outsiders could visit the hostages if accompanied by "responsible authorities." This could pave the way for the return of a United Nations commission that left Iran in March after being denied access to the captives.

Meanwhile, trouble has escalated on Iran's frontier with the neighboring radical Arab state of Iraq. Amid mounting border violence, including an alleged Iraqi attack on an Iranian oil facility, Iran's armed forces were reported on "full alert" April 7. One Tehran newspaper spoke of "war," prompted by Iraqi "chauvinist bullies."

Ironically, some diplomats suspected that serious trouble with Iraq might overshadow, and help defuse, Iran's feud with Washington. But such a flare-up could also threaten the world's oil supplies.

One bone of contention is a small group of islands, controlled by Iran, near the narrow Strait of Hormuz. Much of the world's oil passes through that doorway at the bottom of the Gulf.And diplomats here believe the dispute over the area has reached the brink of war.

Many Arab analysts long have seen such a conflict as likely. In Iraq, an authoritarian regime dominated by mainstream Sunni Muslims rules a population whose majority shares the Ayatollah's Shiite strain of Islam.

Since the toppling of Iran's Shah in early 1979, diplomats in the Arab world have reported periodic unrest among Iraq's Shiites -- particularly in the religious centers of Najaf and Karbala.

For months, the two countries have been trading allegations of subversion or outright aggression. Fighting has flared intermittently on the Iranian-Iraqi frontier.The countries' ambassadors have been recalled.

Iraq now has accused Iran of complicity in an April 1 assassination attempt against the No. 2 man in the Baghdad regime, Tareq Aziz. By late April 7, Iranian officials alleged that thousands of Iranian nationals in Iraq were being trucked forceably across the frontier.

Iran announced it was recalling all its remaining embassy staff from Baghdad.

Tehran news reports, meanwhile, spoke of an Iraqi raid with Soviet-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers against an Iranian oil installation. One newspaper said Iraq had also seized a sliver of Iranian territory but had been driven back early April 7.

One key issue in the Iran-Iraq conflict is control of three strategic, but sparsely populated, islands annexed by Iran in 1971 when British colonial authorities pulled out of the area.

Iraq, fighting Iranian-armed Kurds in its northern hills, in effect recognized Iran's claims to the isles in 1975 as part of a compromise involving Iranian abandonment of the Kurdish rebels.

The Kurds now are restless on both sides of the Iranian-Iraqi frontier. The issue of the islands has apparently revived. And now one of the world's most vital oil regions could find itself involved in a bitter battle.

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