Iran, Iraq struggle for territorial (and propaganda) gains

Iran and Iraq may slug it out in the Gulf for many months - despite recent hopes raised by Syrian President Hafez Assad that he could influence Tehran to end the war.

Apparently the message Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Valayati brought to President Assad in Damascus on New Year's Eve was not very reassuring. Valayati said Iran was ''ready to stand shoulder to shoulder'' with Syria in its efforts to recover the Golan Heights from Israel, but disabused him of the notion that he could easily influence Ayatollah Khomeini to end the Gulf war. This is the report reaching this correspondent's ''listening post'' here from reliable sources in Tehran.

Analysts say Khomeini knew what he was talking about when he described the Gulf war as a ''blessing.'' Despite untold misery it has brought to his country, he would put his own regime in danger of being overthrown in a military coup if he were to end it.

The last attempted coup, on July 10, 1980, occured less than 2 1/2 months before the war started. If there has not been another attempt since, the reason may simply be that the war has neatly kept the Iranian troops pinned down against a foreign enemy.

Despite the demoralizing effect of working under leaders they do not particularly care for, the Iranian troops have acquitted themselves rather well. After stopping the Iraqi advance in the earlier part of the war, they have been able to implement the overall strategy of taking back bits and pieces of territory from the Iraqis in a series of widely spaced, small-scale attacks.

The strategy was begun last March, when former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was still commander in chief of the armed forces. After Mr. Bani-Sadr was dismissed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the plan of piecemeal attacks was continued, though little territory changed hands in themonths after Bani-Sadr's removal and the crisis that erupting in Tehran afterward.

Then on Sept. 27 the Iranian commanders mustered enough strength to launch a sudden strike at the Iraqis in the Abadan area, which had for months been encircled by enemy troops. Amid much hyperbole, the communiques issued by the joint military staff in Tehran announced that the encirclement had been broken and the Baathist troops thrown westward across the Karun River.

Because of a lack of independent observers, there was much skepticism about the accuracy of the Iranian claims. Two days later, however, Baghdad said it had ''voluntarily'' pulled its troops back across the Karun River because its east bank positions had become indefensible.

Some weeks later, on Nov. 29, another burst of communiques were issued in Tehran claiming that the Iranians had recaptured some 70 villages, including the border town of Bostan, near Susangerd, and had pushed the Iraqis right up to the border itself. Once again this was verified by subsequent reports and the release of pictures from the area.

The fighting here was apparently fierce. The Iranians claimed ''more than 1, 000'' enemy deaths, and it became clear only later just how heavy their own losses had been.

After the recapture of Bostan there were Iranian press reports of bodies being brought back from the front to Tehran. The figures were usually high: 215 at one time, 63 at another, and so on. In Kermanshah, businesses were closed for a day out of respect for men from the town killed at the front. The Iraqis had in fact launched a series of counterattacks to retake Bostan, and both sides were taking heavy punishment.

At one point the Iranians claimed that an entire Iraqi ''tank battalion and commando battalion'' had been wiped out trying to retake Bostan. Baghdad also showed that it could put out unverifiable claims. At one point it said that 1, 400 Iranians had been killed in a single battle.

Following the recapture of Bostan there have been two other bursts of military activity. One, in mid-December, was in the mountainous area some 20 miles southeast of the border town of Qasr-e-Shirin. Another, in early January, was near the town of Nowsud, further to the north. Few details of the fighting in either area were released, except that in the Nowsud region the Iranians claimed they had entered Iraqi territory and captured a large number of prisoners there.

The Iranians say they are now holding an overall total of 8,000 Iraqi prisoners. Observers say this figure seems very low, particularly after months of communiques in which the figures of Iraqis killed, injured, or captured were usually high.

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