By the lethal standards of Near Eastern history, there is little without precedent in the war between Iran and Iraq. The bloodshed goes back not 31/2 years, but 5,000.
Nor is there much new about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's style of leadership. In an artificially drawn state of disparate ethnic groups, leaders must rule absolutely: Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon 55 miles south of here in the 18th century before Christ, faced the same problem. And like today, the main threat to Hammurabi's kingdom came from the peoples of the Iranian plateau, who were then the Gutis and the Elamites.
Given the region's long and violent history, Western comparisons of the current conflict with World War I have little relevance. Iraqis themselves compare the Gulf war to the AD 637 battle of Qadisiyah in south-central Iraq, where Arab forces routed the Persians and wrested control of Mesopotamia.
But even that comparison is a recent one, given that as early as 2700 BC, the Sumerian King Mebaragesi ''carried away as spoil the weapons of Elam,'' according to an inscription unearthed by archaeologists.
The French specialist Georges Roux in his book ''Ancient Iraq'' writes: ''This is the first mention, though probably not the first episode, of a very long conflict between Mesopotamia and Elam which had its roots in prehistoric times. . . .''
Beginning with the third millennium before Christ, Iraq was often pitted against Iran to the east and Syria to the west: the same coalition it faces now. Taking both bulls by the horns, the Akkadian King, Sargon, launched offensives around 2300 BC in north Syria and southwest Iran. Then, Iraqis referred to Iran's forces as ''the stinging serpent of the hills.'' Battles were fought in the marshlands, not far from the area of the Majnoon Islands, a focus of recent conflict.
Evidently, Ayatollah Khomeini would like to repeat the 2004 BC Elamite performance of sacking Ur, then the Iraqi capital, and taking the ruler prisoner.
As the centuries wore on, so did the conflict. In the 8th century BC, the Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser, who ruled in Nineveh in northern Iraq, invaded the region southwest of Tehran. In the 6th and 5th centuries before Christ, the Persian kings Cyrus and Xerxes invaded Babylon.
Since medieval times, the struggle between Iran and Iraq has been complicated by the struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. (Most Persians are Shiites, while Iraq's population is mixed.)
In Baghdad, founded by the Abbasid Caliphs in the 8th century, the Sunni and Shiite communities slaughtered each other throughout the Middle Ages. In 1623, for example, the Safavid Persians took Baghdad and destroyed the Sunni mosques, killing thousands. But only 15 years later, the city was retaken by the Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, and thousands of Shiites were massacred.
Iraqis are very sensitive about their history. When a reporter referred to the Abbasid era as ''the golden age of Baghdad,'' an official responded:
''Yes, but you know there was the bad Persian influence during that period because the Abbasid Caliphs had Iranian blood on their mothers' side.''
Iraqis admit they have a ''historical complex'' regarding the Persians.
As an official in the Iraqi Ministry of Information said: ''We are old, America is young. We have been through much more.''