Iraq takes lukewarm approach to a hot war

''Of course,'' sighs the off-duty Iraqi policeman near the banks of the Tigris River, ''the war with Iran will go on.'' Virtually no one in this 1,200-year-old capital - just north of Babylon and the twin river Euphrates - seems to disagree.

And there are apparent signs of some official concern at the bleak, short-term prospects for ending the nearly four-year-old conflict.

Baghdad, these days, is an old city in a scalding-hot month, waiting for a predicted offensive from the Iranians a few hundred miles to the east.

The Iraqis are keen to maintain pressure on another ''front'' where they seem to hold an edge. This is the so-called ''tanker war'' of tit-for-tat air strikes against shipping in the Persian Gulf.

But on Sunday, as if in uneasy acknowledgment that no end to the war seemed at hand, the official Iraqi press ran an uncommonly frank interview with the nation's Air Force chief. He was asked why the Air Force, which has been striking ships near Iran's main Gulf outlet at Kharg Island, didn't destroy the facility outright, ''thus depriving Iran of (the possibility of) exporting its oil?''

He replied that Iraq had already caused some decline in Iranian exports and had the capability to take out Kharg completely at any time. But he said Iraq's ''political leadership'' had so far decided the Air Force should limit itself to hitting ''one wharf, probably as a warning.''

Iran said Saturday Kharg had suffered ''military difficulties'' from Iraqi air strikes, but this had not interfered with oil exports. Western analysts suggest Iran so far has suffered a far less damaging cut in exports than Iraq had hoped.

Diplomats argue that Iran retains at least the staying power to launch the ground offensive for which it has massed a half-million border troops.

Westward in Baghdad, when the dusty desert wind creates a chimeric haze, there seems no hotter place on earth.

But there is. For example: Basra, Iraq's main port, some 325 miles southeast. It, the Iraqis feel, would be one likely target in any new Iranian push.

Much speculation goes on here over why Iran has not launched its oft-predicted major offensive.

There is ample talk of dissension in the Iranian leadership, and of the deterrent power of a recent Iraqi military buildup. But the official consensus, if the Iraqi news media are any guide, is that sooner or later Iran's offensive will occur.

Diplomats argue that - other than to cause further heavy casualities on both sides - a new Iranian thrust will likely fail to force an outright end to the war.

Nor does Iraq so far seem able - or perhaps willing - to do this via its ''tanker war.''

How ordinary Iraqis feel about the war is, meanwhile, hard to say. In this tightly authoritative state, open questioning - much less criticism - of official policy is not a high-percentage pastime.

Most Baghdadis, when asked about the war, reply simply that it is ''good'' - and likely to go on. Diplomats sense no serious internal threat to the rule of Saddam Hussein, whose picture is literally everywhere in this city.

Outwardly, Baghdad seems anything but at war. True, the arriving visitor at the city's posh Sheraton Hotel finds a nicely printed note beginning, ''Welcome to the Sheraton . . . a new dimension in Baghdad,'' and immediately proceeding to offer ''safety regulations in the event of an air raid.''

But very rarely - almost never since the early part of the war - have Iranian jets made it to Baghdad.

Restaurants, movie theaters, even swank nightclubs, continue to operate full tilt. So do shops in Baghdad's old souks, or marketplaces, though inflation and some shortages are reminders of the war.

There is only occasionally any visible hint of concern, official or otherwise , at the apparently open-ended nature of the war. The printed remarks by the Air Force chief seem one such sign.

Even more occasionally do ordinary Iraqis hint at any war fatigue.

The off-duty policeman near the Tigris tells how he'd lost a cousin in the war. The man said the main problem in the war was ''not between the Iraqi and the Iranian peoples, but between the leaderships'' - Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iraq's President Hussein.

''The war is no good,'' he said. ''But as long as Khomeini and Saddam Hussein are around, it will go on.''

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