Iraq's long war may drag regime down

Five months into the Gulf war, how is President Saddam Hussein's Baathist government in Iraq faring? Different answers to this question are given by Iraqis of different persuasions. Official spokesmen continue to be professionally buoyant. But some ideological supporters of the Baath PArty have expressed private reservations that the prolonging of the war will weaken the Hussein regime.

Various opposition elements also have their own versions of how the 13 million Iraqis view their present government. At least some opposition spokesmen now are taking a more realistic view than during their first flush of optimism, back in September, that battling the Iranian revolution would quickly bring Saddam Hussein down.

However, the opposition is united in believing that the longer the war drags on, the nearer the 13-year regime of the Baathists will come to its final downfall.

The truth is hard to get at. President Hussein allows no sign of any political dispute to appear within Iraq. And outside, the exile communities in the Arab world and Europe are subject to continual harassment, including killings, by Iraqi agents.

Since the beginning of the Gulf war, moreover, the oil money with which Saddam Hussein built his state's elaborate repressive apparatus has been lavishly spent on consumer goods to keep his population happy. But, plainly, he did not expect the war to last this long. Now, shortages and power cuts are increasingly affecting the capital, Baghdad, and outlying regions.

The structure of Iraq's internal opposition is based on the country's demographic makeup, and falls into three main groups:

* The ethnic Kurds, amounting to between 1 and 2 million persons. Their battle for autonomy in the mountainous northern region has simmered against the central government in Baghdad since the days immediately following World War I.

The Kurds are renowned for their tribal rivalries, here and in neighboring Iran and Turkey. but at least one Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, has used the opportunity of the Gulf war to escalate his armed struggle against Baghdad.

There are reports that portions of Iraqi Kurdistan now are out of Baghdad's de factom control. And Masoud Barzani's elder brother Obeidallah is reported to have been arrested and executed. Previously he had been acting as a hostage as one of two Kurdish ministers in the Baghdad government. (Both Barzanis are sons of the late Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani.)

*The political parties, which profess to have influence among all Iraq's population groups. Historically and currently, the largest of these is the pro-Moscow Communist Party, which was powerful in the government that preceded the 1968 Baathist coup.

Now, nominally, the Communist are supposed to be represented in the government, which still formally adheres to a friendship treaty with the Soviets , its main arms supplier.

But the Baathists cracked down heavily on local Communists in 1979 and 1980 and are critical of the Soviets with increasing openness. Since the beginning of the Gulf war, Communists in exile have been returning to take up arms against Baghdad from the Kurdish regions, where they now claim to have more than 1,000 fighters.

* The Shiite Muslims, who are ethnic Arabs and form an overall majority in teh country. Their passions were inflamed by the victory of their coreligionists in Iran.

The Shiite opposition traditionally has been expressed in the Appeal Party and a host of smaller groups. But now a new organization, the Islamic Association (Jamiyat al- Islamiya) seeks to unify all these trends.

Encouraged by the Iran regime, the Jamiyat has a military wing, the Mujahideen, which fights alongside the Iranian Army and undertakes sabotage activities inside Iraq.

One of Iranian President Bani-Sadr's chief advisers on Iraqi affairs considers himself close to the Jamiyat. A young cleric from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, in Iraq, he admits now that he, President Bani-Sadr, and most of the Iraqi opposition had underestimated the Iraqi regime's staying power at the beginning of the war.

Now, Sayed Ahmed says, the Baathists' fate will be decided primarily by the outcome of the Gulf war, and all the Iraqi opposition can achieve is a holding action pending the Iraqi Army's eventual defeat. But he is convinced that this will be the war's result.

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