Iraq widens war with Iran as both fight to last bomb, bullet

Iraq seems to be widening its war with Iran, sparking fears among diplomats the two-week-old conflict could now continue -- and possibly escalate -- until one side or the other simply runs out of firepower.

By late Oct. 5, after what must rank as one of history's shortest cease-fires , diplomats at the United Nations reported no indication that day was creeping appreciably nearer. There was even a flurry of reports -- still unconfirmed -- that outside powers were ready to resupply the combatants.

A senior Western diplomat reached at his makeshift basement bomb shelter in Tehran Oct. 5 cited what he called reliable reports Iraq had launched its first major air strike of the war against the north Iranian city of Tabriz, in effect widening the battle arena.

He said the assault also had targeted a nearby oil refinery -- apparently playing on tightening gasoline supplies in Iran. Iran's joint staff later confirmed Iraqi attacks against Tabriz and Kermanshah as well as the Kharg Island oil terminal in the Gulf and a nearby Iranian port.

But there also were renewed indications Iran's Islamic revolutionaries, for whom death in this "holy war" means a ticket to heaven, were determined to fight on. Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai served notice that Iraq, which started the war, "cannot unilaterally announce a cease-fire."

In a reminder that the war was rumbling near the world's major oil exporting lanes, Kuwait Oct. 5 laid the legal groundwork for calling up its armed forces. The Kuwaitis, however, stressed there would be no mobilization until they perceived a clear threat of widened war.

Saudia Arabia, meanwhile, confirmed it would increase its oil output to help compensate for an estimated 3.5 million barrel-a-day shortfall on world markets due to the conflict.

In what Western analysts saw partly as a bid to head off criticism of that move from regional hard-liners, the Saudis also loosed a tirade against Israel at the UN. Informed Arab diplomats dismissed US reports this meant the Saudis and other Arab Islamic countries would seek formal expulsion of Israel from the world body.

Still, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal issued his strongest statement yet on the war, warning Iran to curb public threats against Arab regimes supporting the Iraqi position. Under questioning on a CBS television broadcast, the Saudi prince said Arab League responsibilities would require his nation to help any fellow Arab regime attacked by Iran.

The reported escalation by Iraq followed predictions by outside analysts that an expansionist Iraqi dictatorship deprived of quick victory in the war might be forced to raise the stakes.

Diplomats had expressed concern this could increase the possibility of a desperate widening of the struggle to elsewhere in the oil region, whether by a finally humiliated Iraq or an Iranian regime with little left to lose.

Christian Science Monitor reporter Helena Cobban, writing from Baghdad, Iraq, said one indication the Iraqis had expected a quick victory was that they waited until Sept. 27 to announce postponement of a major annual trade fair in the capital.

Those expectations have been dashed. The most optimistic scenario now painted is that Iraq will draw on the kind of pragmatism that yielded 1975 border concessions to the then-Shah of Iran and again negotiate a compromise with its neighbor.

The problem, these analysts argue, is that one reason Iraq started the latest war was to overturn the 1975 accord and chart a reinforced leadership role for Baghdad within the Arab world.

It was Iraq that offered the Oct. 5 cease-fire, to last four days. But attached were three conditions all but assuring rejection by Iran. The Iranians were told in effect to accept the Iraqi invasion that started the war, lay down their arms, and start discussing Iraqi political demands.

"What Iraq seems to be doing," a dismayed Arab diplomat in the United States commented, "is reacting to unexpectedly tough going on the original battlefront, and to Iran's tough diplomatic stance, by widening the war."

In addition to the reported Tabriz raid, Iraqi warplanes also hit the Tehran area twice during the afternoon of Oct. 5. One Iraqi warplane came close to exploding a butane gas truck near the city, only to be downed by Iranian ground fire, witnesses said.

Fighting reportedly also continued on what has become the main battlefront over recent days -- the vital Iranian port city of Khorramshahr -- despite weekend victory claims by both sides. Later in the day, Iraq formally canceled the cease-fire.

Are the Iranians ready to give up? The consesus among analysts in Iran was "No." One envoy reported, in Tehran at least, "a remarkable sense of calm, determination, and discipline."

There was also, he said, a shortage of gasoline, apparently a result of hoarding existing supplies for Iran's hard-working warplanes. But he said it was impossible to tell exactly how low fuel supplies had become.

The key question at the moment, with most diplomats despairing of a quick political resolution of the crisis, was just how long this and other essential supplies would hold on both sides. There were reports the rivals either were getting, or would get, reinforcement from outside.

The generally pro-Western king of Jordan, bordering Iraq, reiterated readiness to help Baghdad. And Reuter quoted diplomats from Beirut, Lebanon, as saying the Iraqis might take him up on the offer.

But other analysts still questioned whether Jordan's King Hussein really intended to make good on his pledges to back Iraq; whether he would risk violating US regulations on transferring American military equipment in order to do so; and precisely how much help he could be to Iraq's largely Soviet-supplied military machine.

The Egyptian magazine October alleged Libya was funding spare-parts shipments from Turkey and Pakistan to the Iranians, despite Turkish denials.

Iraq muddied the picture further by charging Israeli fliers had helped mount an air strike at a Baghdad nuclear facility earlier in the war. Iran denied at the time having hit the facility. Israelis have made no secret of their desire to squelch Iraqi moves toward a nuclear arms capability.

On the Mideast maxim that an enemy of an enemy is a friend, might the Israelis indeed be pitching in against Iraq? "I suppose you can't rule it out," said a US official privately, "but I stress this remains mere speculation."

Tehran radio alleged the Soviet Union had offered military help to Iran but had been turned down by the deeply anti-Communist Muslim revolutionaries.

The Soviets, much to Tehran's chagrin, have resisted pressure to announce a formal arms embargo on Iraq, although there has been no firm indication Moscow's arms shipments to Baghdad have been continuing.

Both Iran and Iraq have made clear their mistrust of Moscow and Washington, a further complicating factor in the already stalled outside efforts to wind down the crisis.

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