Twenty-eight months have passed since Iraq launched its war against Iran. What started out as a ''blitzkrieg'' involving fast-moving armored divisions and infantry has ground into a ''fits and starts'' conflict with Iran militarily holding the upper hand.
The Iranians have regained most of the territory they lost to the Iraqis during the opening stages of the war in autumn 1980. For months, both sides were involved in World War I-style trench warfare. Intermittently, the two bogged-down armies engaged in clashes of heavy armor, leaving the muddy battlefields littered for miles around with burned-out metal hulks. Not since El Alamein in October 1942 had the world experienced such massive tank onslaughts.
But the Iranians went on the offensive early last year. Pushing back the Baghdad forces, they established two major fronts, one in the east, the other in the south, penetrating up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) inside Iraq. The Iraqis themselves admit that roughly 40 square kilometers are at present under Iranian control. Only in Iranian Kurdistan, where Tehran has concentrated one-third of its forces, do Kurdish rebels in uneasy alliance with the Iraqis control sizable portions of mountainous country.
Although the 300,000-strong Iraqi Army has been forced on the defensive, few military observers believe there is any question of an Iranian victory. ''If anything, the performance of Iraqi troops has improved now that they are fighting on home soil,'' said a West European analyst.
The Baghdad high command, which still relies on assistance from an estimated 2,200 Soviet and East European military advisers, has also proved more adept at organizing its defense strategy than trying to hold onto enemy territory. Furthermore, the Iraqi Air Force is still thought capable of controlling the skies.
Various reports from both sides indicate that fighting, at times heavy, is continuing. Although Western journalists have visited both fronts since the Iranian offensives, their movements have been restricted. Official government communiques concerning the war situation are difficult to verify.
Western diplomats, in most cases, are confined to the capital cities of Iraq and Iran. In Kurdistan, however, the occasional reporter has managed to obtain a detailed glimpse of the war.
Since late 1982, there have been reports of an impending Iranian offensive aimed at breaking through to Baghdad. Iraqi sources maintain that 10 Iranian divisions, a figure questioned by defense analysts, are amassing east of Al Amarah. Ayatollah Khomeini, who seems determined to bring down Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, has called on his men to go into battle ''strong-hearted and full of love for God.''
But some observers point out that present winter conditions appear to discount the launching of an Iranian assault for at least another month. Snow in the mountains and rain-soaked plains would only hamper the deployment of tanks and other armored vehicles. Moreover, a Middle Eastern diplomat noted, in view of Hussein's defense buildup, ''The Iranians could expect crippling casualties if and when such an attack takes place.''
The general consensus among diplomats, military analysts, and other observers in Paris and London is that, ultimately, an end to the Iran-Iraq conflict would have to be a political one. Neither country seems to have the military stamina, equipment, or ability to knock out the other.
Iraq is under growing pressure from the Gulf states to come to terms with Iran. This would imply, at the very least, a return to prewar status, including the dropping of all territorial demands. As for Khomeini, he has shown no willingness to come to the negotiating table. Analysts maintain that his regime will talk only once the situation is completely in Iran's favor. Among Tehran's demands are the creation of a Shiite-dominated Islamic republic and the settling of costly war reparations.
By the end of 1982, according to conservative reports, Iraq had lost some 25, 000 to 30,000 troops. Other sources have trebled that number. Whatever the estimates, Iraq, with a population of fewer than 14 million, can hardly afford to lose such manpower. Already, a substantial portion of its civilian work force consists of imported labor.
Apart from a small contingent of Jordanian soldiers, whose presence is more symbolic than effective, Egypt has also provided Iraq with several thousand military advisers and technicians to help run the war.
Although Iran, with a population of 40 million, has reportedly suffered considerably higher losses, Iraqi casualties appear to have had a more traumatic effect on the home front. Virtually every family has lost at least one son, brother, or father. As the war began to sour, so did public enthusiasm. Unlike Iran, Iraq has never been able to count on religious fanaticism to maintain its war efforts. Among Khomeini's revolutionary guards, for example, it is considered an honor to die as a ''martyr'' in the regime's ''holy war,'' a commitment not necessarily shared by ordinary Iranian conscripts and officers.
Ironically, the military reversals that brought the war onto Iraqi turf have politically benefited the Baathist regime. Only in recent months has Hussein enjoyed a significant rise in public support instigated by patriotic sentiments to defend the homeland. Had Iran not thrust its forces across the frontier, some analysts say, it might have retained a powerful advantage. Iraqi public disillusionment with Hussein's expansionism could have resulted in his overthrow.
Weapons' supplies and spare parts have been major problems for both sides. Ever since Baghdad signed its friendship treaty with Moscow in 1972, the great bulk of Iraq's military backing, both equipment and training, has come from the Soviet Union. Hussein's offensive against Iran, for example, was modeled after conventional Soviet strategy.
Although Moscow publicly adopted a ''neutral'' stand in the present war and halted direct arms supplies to Iraq, the Soviets saw to it that weapons and spare parts continued to arrive via East Germany, Libya, Syria, and North Korea. Without these supplies to replace destroyed or broken-down equipment, Iraq's war effort would have foundered after two or three months. According to US government estimates, Baghdad paid up to $10 billion in hard currency for Soviet arms in the first two years.
Moscow, however, has been playing both camps. Its strategy appears to be aimed at forcing a military stalemate.