Shaken Iraq looks for way to end its war with Iran

Iran has broken the stalemate in the 18-month-long Gulf war with Iraq, with a successful offensive in the Dezful area in the north of the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan.

Western correspondents admitted to the area by the Iranians report that the Iranians have recaptured 800 square miles of territory from the invading Iraqis.

But at no point have the Iranians driven the invading Iraqis back across the border. Consequently it is too early to say whether Iraq is cracking under Iranian military pressure.

Yet the situation is serious enough (from the Iraqi point of view) to have brought King Hussein of Jordan, Iraq's closest ally in the conflict with Iran, hurrying to Baghdad with his prime minister, for consultations March 31 with Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein.

In the meantime, Saddam Hussein is putting the best face on things by trying publicly to make a virtue of necessity. In a March 29 message to his troops that was not made public till 24 hours later, he asked them ''not to feel bitter over the rearrangement of the Iraqi defense lines.'' He added: ''We have chosen and will choose the ground on which we stand, whether on (Iranian) territory or on the borders.''

It had become increasingly clear in recent weeks that Saddam Hussein recognized that in launching the war in September 1980 he had bitten off more than he could chew and that he was maneuvering to extricate himself with minimum loss of face before September of this year.

Why September? Because that is when the next summit of the nonaligned countries is due in Baghdad, and he is scheduled to take over the chairmanship of the nonaligned movement from Fidel Castro of Cuba.

In February, the Iranians sent a delegation to Mr. Castro to ask him to take the initiative to have the September meeting shifted from Baghdad to another nonaligned capital. There is no indication of any move in this direction so far. But if a change of site were eventually decided, it would be a damaging setback for Saddam Hussein -- not least because an impressive building complex to house the conference (some Iraqi government offices thereafter) is nearing completion in the capital.

In mid-March, Saddam Hussein sent a message to the good offices committee of the Islamic Conference -- which had been trying without success to mediate between the two Gulf belligerents -- indicating a softening in Iraq's attitude toward negotiations. Iran, presumably confident of success and under no pressure like that weighing on Saddam Hussein, has remained stubbornly intransigent.

The Iranians have insisted that all Iraqi troops must be withdrawn from Iranian territory before any negotiations can begin.

Until the message to the Islamic Conference committee, Iraq's conditions for negotiations had been a formal recognition of Iraqi sovereignty over the Shatt al Arab estuary and of some minor Iraqi border claims which (the Iraqis said) the late Shah had conceded. These had been the demands made when Iraq opened hostilities in September 1980.

But according to an Iraqi deputy premier, the Islamic Conference has been told that once peace talks show signs of progress, Iraq is willing to begin a staged withdrawal from all the Iranian territory it has occupied.

Saddam Hussein had expected back in 1980 that, given the inner turmoil in revolutionary Iran, his military operation would topple Ayatollah Khomeini and give Iraq an easy victory. Clearly he underestimated the staying power both of a millennia-old Persian nationalism and of the patriarchal Ayatollah.

The question now is Saddam Hussein's own staying power. Will he be able to weather his military setbacks? Will his own military turn on him? Will the three groups within Iraq most often identified with potential opposition to him -- the Arab Shia and Kurdish communities and the communists -- be able to exploit his difficulties and contribute to his downfall?

The Iraqi President is probably counting on being able to resist any hostile internal pressures because of the cushion he has given himself with his measures to ensure a continued relatively better standard of living for most Iraqis, despite the war and its disruption of oil exports.

To this he can add the outside support of all his Arab neighbors except Syria. Even the conservative Sunni Muslim states of the Gulf prefer his Sunni secularism to Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary Shia Muslim fundamentalism.

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