Soviet relations with Iraq, an oil power and onetime Moscow ally seeking political leadership of the Arab world, seem to be slipping from bad to worse. Perhaps the only hint of a silver lining for the Kremlin is that the Baghdad regime is having some serious troubles of its own -- chief among them, a war with neighboring Iran.
Iraq started the war last fall but seems to be having considerably more trouble stopping it, much less winning outright.
The latest indication of souring soviet-Iraqi relations came at the Soviet Communist Party congress that ended here March 3.
The first secretary of Iraq's pro-Moscow Communist Party, in remarks unthinkable without at least tacit Soviet approval, sharply criticized the Iraqi regime from the congress podium. He termed Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein's war with Iran "a destructive military adventure, not in the interests of our people."
Worse, he said (in the Arab equivalent of denouncing Ronald Reagan as a communist), the conflict was "serving the interests of . . . Zionist [Israeli] aggression."
The Soviets themselves have denounced the war as a windfall for "imperialist" powers. But they have remained formally neutral, generally avoiding the kind of harsh criticism of Baghdad policy aired by the Iraqi communist.
The text of his speech, and others by foreign delegates to the congress, was reprinted in the Soviet party newspaper, Pravda.
The Iraqi communist envoy, Aziz Muhammad, called on the Baghdad government to "immediately . . . remove Iraq's troops from Iranian territory."
He also explicitly voiced support for Iraq's Kurdish nationalists, a longtime thorn in the side of the government. Although the last major military clash with Kurdish rebels ended in 1975, reports from Iraq speak of continued official concern over Kurdish unrest, reflected by an apparent reluctance to shift sizable numbers of Iraqi troops from Kurdish areas to the main Iranian battle front.
Finally, in what seemed a slap at Mr. Hussein's tight grip on the Iraqi communists, Mr. Muhammad spoke of "savage repressions and persecutions" against his party.
The Iraqis, whose military wields largely Soviet-manufactured weaponry, signed a formal friendship treaty with Moscow in 1972. It remains technically in force.
But relations were complicated from the start by the ruling Iraqi Baath Socialists' distrust of the well-organized local communists. By 1978, distrust had reached the point where the regime executed 21 communists for alleged subversion within the Army.
The Iraqis have also been forging closer ties with some Western states, like France, and diversifying military and economic deals.
Soviet "neutrality" on the Iran-Iraq war seems to look distinctly less than neutral to Baghdad -- all the more so since it has been coupled with the signing of a Soviet friendship pact with Iraq's chief traditional Arab rival, Syria.
Western and third-world diplomats here expect Moscow to stick with its formal evenhandedness on the war anyway. They have little doubt that the Iraqi communists, with a nudge from Moscow, could start talking more sweetly to Mr. Hussein if a rescue of Soviet-Iraqi relations becomes a realistic possibility.
But the diplomats saw the Iraqi communist's address here as a vivid indication of how unrealistic that possibility seems, at least for the time being. That, silver linings notwithstanding, cannot make the Kremlin very happy.
The problems -- and embarrassment -- of the war effort seem a setback to Mr. Hussein's hopes of displacing an isolated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as chief political leader in the Arab world.
But the Iraqi ruler remains a powerful force in the triangular Iraqi-Saudi-Jordanian entente that has dominated Arab politics since Mr. Sadat's 1979 treaty with Israel.
Iraq, which ranks No. 4 in the Arab world in terms of proven oil reserves, sits atop the Gulf, through which (when a war with Iran is not o n) most of both Iraqi and Saudi crude exports are shipped.