Iraq still pushes for primacy among Arabs

The writer recently visited Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq, though jolted by its war with Iran, seems unswayed from at least one prewar policy priority: the drive for a leadership role in the Arab world.

The Iraqis seem, particularly, to envisage expanded influence among their immediate Arab neighbors on the Persian Gulf.

And though the war has derailed Iraq's bid for regional power in some ways, it may also have deeded long-term improvements in Baghdad's chances in other ways.

Chiefly, the war has changed the face of the Iraqi armed forces. Where political loyalty was once the major criterion for advancement, a more professional and better-armed force is now in place. The new look is reflected even in the trimmer waistlines of top military men. And it is reflected in the existence of a uniformed general staff, created only once the rigors of war required one.

''The Iraqis know (that starting) the war was a mistake,'' a nonaligned ambassador in Baghdad remarks privately.

Another ambassador adds: ''Never again is the Army likely to embark on a major war, certainly never with Israel. But within the Arab world, it will be a potential force of intimidation on other Arabs - whether on states like Syria, or Gulf oil countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.''

And one ironic spinoff of the conflict has been, at least for the time being, to earn Baghdad the support of both Moscow and Washington.

A host of potential obstacles remains to any postwar Iraqi bid for regional primacy. Some relate to the war.

For one thing, merely realizing it was a mistake to count on a quick victory over Iran four years ago does not resolve the lingering problem of how to end the war.

For another, while the Iraqis and Iranians have been battling, various changes in the Middle East have produced a political and economic environment generally less friendly to Iraqi ambitions.

Egypt, turned from Arab leader to Arab pariah by then-President Anwar Sadat's 1979 treaty with Israel, is making its way back into the Arab mainstream. Syria, Iraq's neighbor and longtime rival, has received a hefty Soviet arms transfusion since the 1982 war in Lebanon. Oil, Iraq's economic wild card, has dived in price on world markets.

Beyond all this, Iraq's ruling Baath socialist party may have to reckon internally with the streamlined military. While no one in Baghdad's foreign diplomatic corps is predicting outright conflict between the Baath and the generals, one veteran ambassador raises the rhetorical question: ''Do you really think the military men will just go back and keep quiet after the war?''

He suspects not. ''This better-trained, professional Army is now used to getting first economic priority. There is a new breed of military man.''

Precisely how the military will view Iraq's postwar role in the region is unclear at this stage. But Baghdad diplomats have little doubt that President Saddam Hussein envisages a major role for Iraq once the war is over.

President Hussein's recent statements do stop considerably short of an outright declaration of candidacy for regional primacy. It would be startling were this not so, if only because Iraq's major Arab backers in the war include such states as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

In what Baghdad diplomats view as a seminal press interview - held with Kuwaiti newspaper editors in May - Hussein soft-pedaled the Iraqi Baathists' traditional vision of a fully united Arab world in which Baghdad would play a pivotal position.

But he made it clear that he sees Iraq as a major, active force in the region - particularly in the Gulf area.

Noting the large number of foreign nationals living in most neighboring Gulf oil states, Hussein said these countries must ''be strict'' with such foreigners.

''If something happened in Kuwait and the Iraqi rulers were to stand idly by doing nothing, then such rulers would be worthless. Their life will be meaningless if Kuwait - God forbid - was lost, or Bahrain.... Iraq, praise be to God, has been able to stand as a barrier preventing any harm befalling you.''

''Iraq is not seeking external manifestations'' of power, he said. And he said Iraq still holds to its traditional self-image as an actor in overall Arab politics, rather than as a ''Gulf'' state.

But he also declared: ''When the war is over and you want to set up a Gulf intervention force ... or at any time you believe Iraq is worthy of becoming a Gulf brother at any level of cooperation, we shall study this.''

Before Iraq poured troops and tanks over the Iranian frontier in September 1980, Baghdad had indeed been moving in the direction of a more active role in the Gulf and, generally, within the Mideast.

It was Baghdad that played host to the pan-Arab conference in spring of 1979 to chart sanctions against Egypt for signing a peace pact with Israel. At the conference, the Iraqis moved quickly to step into the power vacuum created by Egypt's new pariah status, actively mediating a compromise among such parties as the Syrians, Saudis, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

At about the same time, Iraq also sealed a little-noticed accord for domestic security cooperation with Saudi Arabia - a state that was in equal measure militarily vulnerable and oozing with oil wealth.

Then, in early 1980, Iraq unveiled a pan-Arab charter for the decade, rejecting any superpower military presence in the Mideast and charting a course of regional nonalignment. And then came the Gulf war, clearly intended to further Iraqi stature and influence throughout the region. But the war didn't turn out quite as hoped.

Still, Iraq has various built-in strengths that seem sure to survive the war, Baghdad-based diplomats argue. Key among them is the fact that Iraq still has a huge store of crude oil, and - relative to other Gulf states - sizable water resources and a large indigenous population.

''Some people talk and say Iraq owes so much, that it is in debt'' because of the war, President Hussein said in the Kuwaiti interview. ''But when the war ends, we will be very capable of repaying all our debts.''

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