The battle of the broadcasts in Gulf war

''O zealous children of Iraq! O officers and soldiers of the Iraqi military! The Islamic forces have begun their expanded operations in order to help you topple the tyrant of Baghdad!

''Take advantage of this precious opportunity to liberate yourselves from the filth of the infidel Baathist!''

Thus Tehran radio rang in Iran's latest offensive in the 3 1/2-year-old Gulf war.

By late Tuesday, the conflict seemed to center on the Iraqi oil island of Majnoon, captured by the Iranians in their new offensive. Iraqi forces were said to be mounting a major assault to retake the island - even while mounting a verbal counterattack on Iran's charge, now echoed in Washington, that Iraq had used chemical weapons recently.

Yet Tehran radio broadcasts, like the call for Iraqis to topple their leader - and similarly strident ones from Iraq - have become as integral a part of the conflict as tanks, artillery, jet fighters, and helicopter gunships.

The cliche ''war of words'' somehow fails to capture the depth - or seriousness - of the broadcast rivalry. For underpinning it has been the assumption by each warring party that sooner or later, the other's ''criminal regime'' will collapse at the hands of its own indignant, war-weary people.

And, rival announcers leave inescapably clear, the Gulf war is not to be seen as a mere face-off between 20th-century nation-states. For Tehran radio, it is a war ''between Islam and heresy'' - that is, between Ayatollah Khomeini's fiery brand of Shiite Islam and the rule of Iraq's traditionally secular President, Saddam Hussein, over a country that, like Iran, is mostly Shiite.

At stake for Baghdad is an oil-primed mix of Arab nationalism and economic development - against ''Persia and its rulers - the charlatans and jugglers'' who want ''to send free and prosperous Iraq back to the epochs of humiliation, backwardness, fragmentation. . . .''

Yet so far this battle for hearts and minds has seemed every bit as stalemated as the bloodletting on the battlefield. Iraqi Shiites have apparently not heeded the Iranian ayatollahs' call to revolt. And the Iranian people - who, by Saddam Hussein's calculations before he launched the Gulf war, were to have quickly toppled the Khomeini theocracy - have done nothing of the sort.

If anything has changed - as Iranian broadcasts confidently note - it is that the Iraqi regime has intensified calls for peace. Saddam, remarked Khomeini in a recently broadcast address, ''has come down in the world.''

On each side, meanwhile, the broadcast vitriol has steadily intensified, whether in the form of ''battle communiques'' for domestic ears, or exhortations , in Arabic or Persian as appropriate, aimed at the rival population.

Iran has taken to referring to its Iraqi foe as ''the Zionist enemy'' - Arab-nationalist shorthand for the Israelis. Iraqi broadcasts, at their mildest, favor the epithet ''Magi'' - referring to an ancient priestly caste in Persia.

Sometimes there is considerable truth in the invective of Gulf communiques. Iraq, for instance, seems genuinely to have prevented Iran's latest offensive from achieving a decisive breakthrough beyond the seizure of Majnoon, but recent claims that it had bombed Iran's Kharg Island oil terminal have proved more suspect.

And doctors imply that the arrival over the weekend of scorched Iranian soldiers in European hospitals has lent added credibility, although not ironclad support, to Iran's charges that chemical weapons have been used against it in the war. On Monday, the United States State Department echoed Iran's allegations.

Yet the rhetoric in which rival battle reports are packaged provides insight into the nonmilitary stakes of the conflict.

''Great sire!'' began a message from Iraq's Third Army commander to President Hussein, broadcast recently by Baghdad. ''We gladly inform you of the annihilation of thousands of harmful Magi insects that carried out an abortive offensive last night. . . . We have turned the Magi into black masses piled upon our pure soil. . . .

''We will turn what is left of the harmful insects into food for the birds of the wilderness and the fishes of the marshes.'' Typically, the message ends: ''May Allah grant us success!''

Keenly aware of Tehran's ''Shiite card,'' the secularist Hussein regime in Baghdad has taken increasing care to make use of Koranic verse and metaphor in addressing its people. In references to Iran, the stress is on Tehran's alleged squandering of its own youth in ultimately doomed ''suicide'' assaults. This theme is also driven home in Baghdad's Persian-language broadcasts to Iran. They have been accompanied, of late, by warnings that ''we are capable of wiping Iranian towns off the map.''

''This time,'' said a recent Baghdad broadcast, ''not even Tehran, where Khomeini lives, will remain safe.''

Iranian broadcasts, for their part, seem to reflect a sense that Tehran is slowly but surely wearing down the Iraqis and that the latest offensive could yet be the turning point.

Tehran has stepped up its calls for revolution across the border - offering, in one recent broadcast, an ''amnesty'' for those who pay heed, once an ''Islamic government'' is installed in Baghdad. Another broadcast called on the Iraqis to surrender, adding: ''When you surrender, your chant should be: 'Allah is great. Victory to Islam, and death to Saddam!' ''

Ayatollah Khomeini, in domestically broadcast remarks to government news media employees a few days back, lamented that ''Iraqi propaganda'' had successfully hidden the fact that ''Saddam is so desperate. . . . That poor man has come down in the world so much that he is going around borrowing money and begging others to come and restore the peace.''

The outside world's media, he charged, have mislead-ingly suggested the US ''might interfere'' in the war.

''This is all nonsense,'' the Ayatollah countered. ''Saddam is going to fall and neither America nor any other power can keep him in office.''

Audibly, his audience shouted: ''Death to America. . . . Death to the USSR. . . . Death to the hypocrites and Saddam. . . . Death to Israel!''

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