If two countries with similar-sounding names want to fight it out thousands of miles from either the United States or Western Europe, should we be concerned?
Yes, if those two countries, which happen to be Iran and Iraq, start to involve other countries in their war.
The war between these two rival Middle East neighbors will be four years old this September. Yet it has only been in the last few weeks that other countries have been directly affected. The problem for both Iran and Iraq is that so far neither side has been strong enough to knock the other one out.
While the two countries were virtually stalemated on the battlefield, no one was too worried. There was even a sense of relief that since these two revolutionary countries were so busy fighting each other, they didn't have the time to cause much mischief in the rest of the region.
Now the conflict has become a lot more serious. Iraq has been trying a new tactic.
Its strategy is to prevent Iran from exporting oil, its major source of wealth. This Iraq has done by attacking tankers from other countries as they fill up with Iranian oil at Kharg Island, Iran's major oil terminal.
Quite naturally Iran feels that if its oil exports are blocked, it will do the same to Iraq. Iran has made a point of aiming at ships from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are among the strongest backers of Iraq in this Gulf war.
This is always the danger of war. The longer it goes on, the more likely other countries will get dragged into it, too.
Hopes that Iran and Iraq would settle their differences by now have faded. The fact that they have a long history of hostility has a lot to do with it.
In ancient times Iraq was better known as Mesopotamia and Iran as Persia. They have long been rivals. In one of the most crucial of all battles the Arab Army, which included the Iraqis, defeated the Persians at Qadisiyah as far back as AD 637, more than 1,300 years ago. The proud Persians, who had a vast empire, never lived down that defeat. Some experts feel that today's Iranians, who are Middle Easterners and Muslims but not Arabs, have been seeking revenge ever since.
The Iraqis, in turn, bear several grudges against Iranians. In 1975, while in a weakened military state, they felt they had no alternative but to allow Iran control over three islands in the Persian Gulf which they feel belong to them. They were also unhappy that the dividing line separating Iraq and Iran ran down the middle of the Shatt al Arab waterway. They would like control of the entire waterway. This has been a source of continual friction between the two countries.
To make things worse, the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein (not to be confused with King Hussein of Jordan), and the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, cannot stand each other.
Ayatollah Khomeini is determined that there can be no peace until President Hussein is toppled as head of the Iraqi government. The Ayatollah's bitterness stems from President Hussein's decision to expel the Ayatollah from his country in 1978. The Ayatollah, whose arch enemy had been the Shah of Iran, had taken refuge in neighboring Iraq for many years.
President Hussein, like several other Middle East leaders, felt that the Ayatollah's extreme kind of Muslim preaching was creating trouble and could cause political upheavals.
This is partly why Middle East leaders are quite happy if the war goes on awhile, provided it does not get out of hand. In that way there is less likelihood that Ayatollah Khomeini will turn his attention on their countries with the idea of increasing the influence of his special kind of Muslim religion , known as Shiite.