Why Iraq holds off making good its threat to close Kharg Island

In men, money, military materiel, and even morale, Iraq seems concerned at least for now to husband its resources in the Persian Gulf war. Combined with constraints on the Iranian side, this has perpetuated something close to stalemate in the four-year-old war.

For Iraq, ''the war has become, at present, a war of economy,'' a foreign ambassador here says.

Having seen the early stages of the conflict claim a heavy human, military, and financial price, the political leadership in Baghdad is very clearly looking for any military leaks.

Some diplomats speak of possible tension, as a result of this general caution , between the political leadership and some career military men. Published remarks last Sunday by the commander of Iraq's Air Force could be read as supporting this theory. But there is by no means unanimity among foreign diplomats on this point.

What is generally agreed is that the reigning attitude of caution on the war is one reason Baghdad has so far failed to make good on threats to destroy Iran's main Gulf oil terminal at Kharg Island.

''The keenness to fight economically'' is also seen as an explanation for concern here over the expected new ground offensive by Iran, even though the Iraqi defense buildup in the area is thought likely to bear the brunt of such an assault.

The delay in that offensive, meanwhile, has underscored political-military constraints on Iran as well. Some diplomats here speculate that internal Iranian political conflicts explain the delay. Others sense Iranian concern at likely losses in any new ground thrust, predicting Iraq would respond with chemical weapons and deadly antipersonnel shelling.

Irag has repeatedly denied charges abroad that it has used chemical weapons in the war.

An ambassador notes a further possible constraint on Iran: Although the hilly , northern border area seems militarily the logical place for an Iranian offensive, limitations in Iran's training, troop reliability, and supply capacity make a strike more likely in the flat, southern region where Iraq's own might has been concentrated.

The diplomatic consensus is that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his colleagues might, if convinced they were in striking distance of pushing Iran to a cease-fire, still try a preemptive air attack against Iran's Kharg Island terminal.

But the current, more cautious approach helps limit Iraq's military options on this and other fronts.

The clearest example is Kharg Island. The Iraqis have long hoped to shut down Iranian oil exports, thus depriving Tehran of earnings crucial to its war machine.

Iraq has explicitly threatened to destroy Kharg. Iraq has acquired sophisticated jets and missiles from France and the Soviet Union with the presumed aim of making good on such warnings.

But instead, the Iraqis have opted for a ''tanker war'' that, while complicating shipping in the Gulf and somewhat reducing Iranian crude exports, has not critically interrupted them so far. A neutral diplomat here estimates that, at present, the most Iraq can hope to achieve through the tanker war is a 30 percent cut in Iran's Gulf oil shipment.

So why not take out Kharg Island completely? Various quarters offer various theories. Some Western military experts point out that, regardless of chosen tactics or strategy, such an attack is a lot easier said than done.

Key equipment and storage facilities at Kharg are underground. Loading can be done by gravity hookup without the need for pumping machines. One source maintains that, during the United States' hostage crisis in Tehran, American experts concluded the only effective way to take out the Kharg terminal would be to land a commando team that would systematically plant and detonate explosive charges throughout.

The official Iraqi news media have avowed, generally, that the main reason there has been no major move against Kharg is that Baghdad's generous, responsible, and eminently diplomatic sense indicates that all parties should first be given every chance at achieving a peaceful resolution of the Gulf conflict.

But the consensus of senior diplomats here is that the major consideration is one of ''economy'' in all facets of the war.

''True, it would be difficult militarily to destroy Kharg. But there are practical ways that the Iraqis might seriously damage the installation and put it out of commission for a fair amount of time,'' remarks a diplomat.

''The problem is cost. The leadership doesn't want, for example, to have to mount an operation in which they send, say, 50 planes over Kharg, and lose 15'' expensive aircraft and their pilots in the process.

A foreign military attache agrees. He notes that the pattern of Iraqi Air Force strikes - though its pilots are trained for pinpoint approach - has been to fly very high, drop a necessarily inaccurate bomb load, and head back to base.

When the Iraqis did recently manage to inflict some minor damage on Kharg, they apparently didn't realize this for some time. The initial Baghdad claim was merely to have hit a ship near Kharg. (Reuters reports from Tehran that a portion of the terminal has been closed due to damage from an Iraqi strike.)

Last Sunday, the Kharg Island strategy got uncommonly direct public treatment here in an officially published interview with Iraq's Air Force commander.

Asked why Iraq had yet to take out the oil terminal, he said this had been a ''political decision.'' He said the ''political command'' in Baghdad felt that only partial damage to Kharg was currently advisable, presumably to send ''a warning.'' He was quoted as adding he was, of course, in no position to question the ''political command.''

He said his pilots were operationally capable of destroying Kharg at any time. But the political leadership, in deciding strategy, was able to take a ''more comprehensive'' outlook and weigh more than military factors in charting war policy. For now this policy is seen as making an all-out strike on Kharg unlikely.

Says a senior diplomat: ''Make no mistake, the Iraqis will continue increasingly to mount air strikes on Gulf shipping. . . .

''But as for a full attack on Kharg, or a ground offensive, the signs seem to point against this. It's a matter of price against expected return.''

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