Gulf war drags on in a stalemate -- despite recent Iranian offensives
''Warriors of the path of truth and justice, with the power of faith in Islam , are delivering repeated and fatal blows to the Saddamist warmongers,'' Iran's 1,117th war communique since September 1980 trumpets.
''With the glowing combat spirit the lofty Iraqis and their valiant army possess, our forces pursue their just fighting against the forces of charlatan Khomeini,'' Iraq's 899th communique rejoins.
This much is certain about the Gulf war: The Iranian military is on the offensive inside Iraq. But like the centuries-old Persian-Arab, Shiite-Sunni rivalries on which it is based, the 26-month-old conflict seems destined to drag on inconclusively.
Middle East analysts are divided on whether Iraq is in real danger. It is true that since last summer the Iraqis have been on the defensive. And they are having to rely more and more on recruited manpower and foreign financing from elsewhere in the Arab world.
The Iranian regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, meanwhile, by building up its war chest through increased oil sales, is trying to replenish its military stockpile. But since Iran's counterinvasion of Iraq last summer, the military commanders of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein seem to have contained their opponents.
The key Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra are still far from Iranian guns. Even with its mid-November offensive, Iran had penetrated only three to six miles inside the Iraqi border. Baghdad is 70 miles from the front; Basra, which many strategists believe to be Iran's real aim, is 20 miles. Even though Iraq's Hussein announced last June that his forces were relinquishing captured territory, the Iraqis still hold small parcels of Iran.
Each time there is an upsurge in fighting, Middle East watchers try to determine whether this is the move that breaks the stalemate. They wonder whether it will jeopardize Hussein's hold on Iraq, draw other Arab states into a bigger war, cause the Shiite Muslims of the Arab world to rebel against their Sunni rulers, or bring in the superpowers.
These are important ramifications to monitor - but at this point a kind of mean status quo exists: Arab and Persian soldiers continue to perish, immense sums of money are being fed into the war machines, and the potential for a genuine crisis in the oil-rich Gulf remains undiminished.
Numerous efforts to negotiate a cease-fire have failed. The latest failure was that of the Islamic Conference Organization in October. A new effort was reported Nov. 17. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was preparing to support an Algerian effort to bring about peace.
But the signals coming from Saudi Arabia are puzzling. As it calls for a negotiated peace, the Saudi regime also calls Iran's terms for ending the war ''unrealistic and impossible.'' State-controlled Riyadh Radio Nov. 10 called Iran a tool of ''the enemies of Arabism and Islam'' and said there was no way to foil Iranian aims ''except by supporting Iraq financially and militarily.''
And the GCC's backing of the new peace effort doesn't mesh with an Iraqi News Agency report that the GCC summit drew up a plan to give Iraq increased material support.
In the end, any peace effort will have to overcome virtually insurmountable conditions that Iran has laid down. Iranian President Sayed Ali Khamenei recently reiterated his country's conditions: that Iraq withdraw from all Iranian territory, that Iraq pay Iran $150 billion in reparations, and that the Iraqis remove Hussein from power in Baghdad.
While Hussein has expressed his willingness to remove his troops from inside Iran, he absolutely rejects the second and third of the Iranian conditions.
It seems likely that Hussein will endure - if for no other reasons than the ruthlessness with which he has dispatched his foes at home and the fact that the dreaded Iranians want him overthrown. But if the Iranians make a serious breakthrough on the battlefield and really menace one of Iraq's major cities, Hussein's fortunes may turn.
Such a threat to Hussein probably will not take place until next spring. If the pattern of the past two years repeats itself, the heavy fighting this fall will slow down over the winter months and pick up next spring.
Unless and until Baghdad is seriously threatened, it is unlikely other Arab countries will openly fight the Iranians. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman are already providing Iraq with great amounts of financial aid: an estimated $30 billion to date. Egypt is selling much of its old Soviet-made military equipment (as Egypt rearms itself with American and European models) to Iraq. But Egyptian Prime Minister Fuad Mohieddin recently said, ''The idea of Egypt dispatching Egyptian forces to fight alongside the Iraqis is not relevant.'' At this point, that is also the feeling of the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Omanis, and Qataris.
Having watched this no-win war for so long, the leaders of these countries know that to send troops would not significantly shift the military balance but could provoke the temperamental Iranian leadership, increase the suicidal fervor of Iranian troops, and perhaps open the way to problems at home in Arab Shiite communities.
But other Arab countries are quietly sending men to Iraq. Jordan earlier this year began sending volunteers to fight alongside the Iraqis. The Sudanese recently agreed to set up recruitment centers in their capital, Khartoum, to enlist volunteers to fight in Iraq. Thousands of Moroccan and Egyptian migrant workers are either in the Iraqi military's pay or are holding jobs that free more Iraqi men to fight.
The Arabs do take Iran seriously. Its Islamic revolution has more power as an abstraction - an ideological threat to the conservative, sometimes lax Sunnis of the Arab world - than as a concrete battlefield menace. This is why a proposal at last week's GCC summit that the members impose an economic boycott on Iran was rejected. Similarly, the failure of the GCC to forge a collective security agreement is seen as a direct result of the warnings delivered by the Iranian leadership the day the summit opened.