The grinding, no-win conflict that began 16 months ago at the northern end of the Persian Gulf is today on the verge of becoming a general Arab-Persian war.
Diplomats in the Arab world see the increasing involvement of Arab moderates -- Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and even Egypt - in what began as a war between Iraq and Iran as a power play. But it is one that could backfire on the moderates.
On Jan. 28 Jordan's King Hussein, an early and faithful supporter of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the war with Iran, pledged to send Jordanian volunteers to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers. Enlistment centers have been set up at 16 locations throughout the kingdom. The government reports brisk business , and diplomats believe more than 2,000 Jordanians may have volunteered for action already.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states also appear to be increasing their support for Iraq. The Iraqi News Agency contended this week that a vanguard of Moroccan volunteers also was on the way to the Mesopotamian Valley. Diplomats and Arab analysts in the Middle East see this as a gamble by these powerful, moderate Arab countries to:
* Show Iran a united Arab front in hopes of convincing Iranian leaders that a negotiated settlement is the only way of ending the fighting. Saddam Hussein has been searching for a way to bring Iran to the conference table for over a year. His search has grown more anxious as Iranian forces in recent weeks have scored a series of minor victories.
* Solidify a slowly developing Saudi-led grouping of Arab states. The grouping, called the Gulf Cooperation Council, is a conservative and pro-Western bloc. As such it opposes the Iranian revolution and seeks to isolate the pro-Soviet, pro-Iranian states (primarily Syria, but also Libya and South Yemen). This is the coalition that supports Saudi Crown Prince Fahd's eight-point Middle East peace plan. Egypt and Iraq are being closely identified with this coalition and one day could be part of it.
* Get in a jab at Syria's Hafez Assad, who supports Iran. Jordan's grudge against Assad goes back several years, and diplomats in Amman report tension between the two neighboring countries is high. Saudi Arabia is angered that Syria derailed the Fahd plan at last November's short-lived Arab summit. And Syria has not endeared itself to Egypt with pronouncements such as the one Feb. 3 in the state-controlled press that Hosni Mubarak should be overthrown.
Egypt has allowed retired Army officers to enlist in the Iraqi Army, the Beirut newspaper an Nahar reported this week. Last summer Egypt's Anwar Sadat revealed he was selling surplus Soviet-issue weapons to Iraq through third parties. It is not certain whether Mr. Sadat's successor is continuing this policy, since he tends not to boast of controversial dealings. But knowledgeable Egyptian sources do say President Mubarak enjoys considerably better relations with Saddam Hussein than Mr. Sadat did.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain are at odds with Iran. This is because of persistent anti-Saudi propaganda from Tehran as well as evidence of Iranian involvement in a coup attempt in Bahrain Dec. 16 and past Iranian air raids of Kuwaiti border posts. Saudi Arabia responded to the coup allegations by sending Interior Minister Prince Nayif to Bahrain to sign a security cooperation pact Dec. 19. And the Gulf states have loaned or given Iraq between $16 billion and $30 billion to finance the war
Goading the Arabs on, moreover, is the Israeli connection.
''All of these Arab countries are reacting in great measure to the well-documented military links between Israel and Iran,'' comments a Western diplomat.
That link, hinted at since the outset of the Gulf war in September 1980, became more apparent last summer, when evidence pointed to a shipment of Israeli weapons to Iran via Cyprus. The Israeli connection was evident again this week when Maj. Saad Haddad, commander of the Israeli-backed right-wing militias in south Lebanon, responded to King Hussein's appeal by offering to send his own volunteers to fight on Iran's side in the Gulf war.
Israeli officials have frequently confirmed their interest in keeping the war going as a way of diverting Arab attention. Last week, in an interview much criticized in Israel, top Israeli Foreign Ministry officials admitted to the British Broadcasting Company that Israel is aiding Iran.
But diplomats see the danger in increasing involvement on Iraq's side for these moderate Arab countries. The human and financial drain could spread to these other countries as they send men and materiel to the front. There is also the fear that Iran could open up new conflicts all along the Gulf and hit the ever-vulnerable oil installations.
Moreover, these sources contend, Iran is more likely to see the united Arab backing of Iraq as a provocation - and to fight on to prove it will not be cowed.
''In some ways the moderates are playing right into Israeli hands,'' comments a diplomat posted to the Arab world. ''But then, what choice do they have?'' he asks.