Iraq makes sure world watches Gulf

Iraq's most determined bid so far to force a negotiated end to its costly war with Iran has, at least initially, failed. It seems unlikely in the extreme that Iraq will abandon the effort.

But the Iranians Tuesday shrugged off as ''imaginary and without foundation'' an Iraqi claim Monday to have bombed tanker berths at Kharg Island, the main Iranian oil terminal. Reports from oil industry sources said at midday Tuesday that Kharg was operating normally, and that at least two tankers had been loading there in recent hours.

This implied either that the Iraqi ''strike'' against Kharg was only verbal, or that what bombing raids did occur failed seriously to disrupt Iranian oil operations.

If there is a silver lining for the Iraqis, it is that their announcement did propel a sudden rise in the price of oil on the international spot market and gold on jittery world markets. This suggested that the outside world is watching any Iraqi endeavor concerning Kharg Island with appropriate concern over possible effects on oil price and supply.

It is precisely this assumption that seems to have underpinned Iraq's announcement of ''destructive strikes'' against Kharg, and Baghdad's parallel warning that the attack ''signals the beginning of the blockade we have decided to impose on this area.''

The Iraqis, whose own oil economy has suffered far more than Iran's during the 42-month war of attrition, are assumed to be hoping that if the conflict seriously impairs world oil commerce, outside nations will somehow figure a way to prod Iran to the negotiating table.

Iran has pledged repeatedly to close the Strait of Hormuz - the roughly 25 -mile Gulf outlet through which a sixth of the noncommunist world's oil flows - if the Iraqis disrupt Iranian oil exports.

Iraq, no doubt, finds reason for encouragement in a recently increased US and British naval presence in the Gulf area - and reports that a US ship went so far Sunday as to loose warning shots on an Iranian jet that ventured near the American vessel.

One Western news report Tuesday also said Iraq's announced air strike on Kharg had caused shipping officials in Japan - a key oil customer of Iran - to warn tankers against calling at the Iranian facility. It was unclear whether, with Kharg apparently operating normally on Tuesday, Japanese tankers would stay away.

But the central lesson of the initial return on Iraq's announced strike against Kharg Island must be a discouragingly familiar one to the regime in Baghdad: It is a lot easier to start a war with Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran than to call one off.

Among the possible obstacles still ahead in any Iraqi bid to play the ''oil card'' are the following:

* Iran seems unlikely to act on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz at least until Kharg Island or other Iranian oil facilities are genuinely impaired. This, so far, Iraq has proved either uninclined or unable to accomplish.

* World oil prices are slack. Supplies, notably in the West's strategic stockpiles, are high. A serious world oil panic - say, on the scale of the mid- 1970s crisis - may be some time off, even if and when the Iraqis do disable Iranian facilities.

* And, most troublesome for the Iraqis, there is no guarantee that even an oil-strapped West can or will find a way to force the Iranians to call off the Gulf war. This is true even if Iran does ultimately try to block Hormuz, and if the outside world moves muscularly to reopen it.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis have been taking steps to resuscitate their own oil economy. It was hurt, among other things, by neighboring Syria's 1982 closure of a pipeline through which as much as 1.2 million barrels of Iraqi crude used to flow to a terminal on the Mediterranean.

Iraq says it has recently upgraded the capacity of an alternative pipeline, via Turkey, from 700,000 to about 900,000 barrels a day, and hopes to expand to roughly a million barrels this spring. Baghdad is also moving to arrange construction of further outlets through Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Arab Gulf states, which have been pumping billions of dollars into Iraq's war effort against a Tehran regime they see as a shared threat, have also been lobbying in favor of Iraq's call for a negotiated peace. Yet those efforts, including a Kuwaiti ''mediation'' effort between the Iranians and Iraqis announced almost two weeks ago, have had no visible effect.

(Pentagon sources say there are about 30 American ships operating in the region, Monitor correspondent Brad Knickerbocker reports from Washington. These include the aircraft carrier USS Midway with its attack, fighter, and support aircraft and another six combat ships.

(Also included among these 30 ships are another 14 or 15 prepositioned civilian ships, loaded with weapons, fuel, ammunition, and other military supplies. These are part of the US Central Command, formerly known as the Rapid Deployment Force, headquartered in Florida.

(All of these ships normally operate in and around the Indian Ocean, including the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. Pentagon sources stress that there has been no unusual movement of these ships in light of recent increased fighting.

(But Defense Department officials also note that the operating region of the aircraft carrier task force and its supply ships includes the area near the narrow passageway between the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, ''within air range of the Strait of Hormuz,'' a Navy source said.)

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