US rescue bid: still support from W. Europe, Japan but US prestige drops in Mideast as tensions rise; Iran-IRaq hostilities flare

Beirut contributor Helena Cobban reports: A senior Shiite Muslim colleague of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has been executed in Iraq, as tensions between the two Gulf neighbors continue to mount.

Further indication of the rift was a report from Iran on April 27 claiming that a coup had taken place in Iraq and that Iraq's President Saddam Hussein had been slain. The report was promptly denied by Iraq, which said that President Hussein had met visiting Seychelles President Albert Rene on April 27.

The execution of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, however, points up the threat Iraq's Baathist regime apparently perceives from the Shiite communities that make up more than half the Iraqi population.

An announcement from Ayatollah Khomeini's office in Tehran, Iran, said that Ayatollah Sadr, actually Ayatollah Khomeini's superior in the Shiite hierarchy, was killed in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, April 20, along with his sister.

A pro-Iraqi magazine has given indirect confirmation of this report, saying that Ayatollah Sadr was condemned to death by the Iraqi authorities for heading a subversive organization known as "Al-Daawa" (The Call).

Among other dissidents reportedly executed by the Iraqis in recent weeks were former Foreign Minister Abdel-Karim Skeikhali and one of his relatives, an official with a United Nations agency.

These executions came in the wake of two failed attempts to assassinate Baathist leaders in Baghdad in grenade attacks, later blamed by the regime on "Iranian elements."

The Baathists then struck back by launching wide-scale arrests among Iraqi Shiites, who during the 15 years of Ayatollah Khomeini's exile in southern Iraq listened to his Islamic revolutionary teachings.

The latest round of hostility between the Iraqi and Iranian regimes, which has continued in different forms since last summer, thus appears to be taking on an increasingly sectarian religious coloring.

The Baathist leaders in Iraq today are drawn mostly from the narrow belt in the middle of the country populated by ethnic Arabs following the Sunni Muslim tradition. They are sandwiched between, and heavily outnumbered by, Sunni Kurds to the north and Shiite Arabs to the south.

For several years after they came to power in 1968, the Baathists were able to absorb the aspirations of the latter gropu within their own program of secular Arab nationalism.

They had trouble with the Kurds, however, until an agreement struck with the Shah of Iran in 1975 cut off the Kurds' major means of outside support.

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