Iraqis ready to fight but push for peace

At 9 o'clock in the morning, the children of the Mansour Elementary School were lined up in a horseshoe formation around a flagpole in the back schoolyard. In a scene repeated in schools across Iraq, student honor guards - dressed in military uniforms representing various branches of the armed forces - marched in step to the pole and raised their country's flag.

''Since the war,'' school principal Sophie Mubarak says, ''children wear uniforms for war spirit, to show that they want to defend their country. They are enthusiastic about it.'' The enthusiasm is extended to lessons in firearms use for schoolchildren from the fourth grade up.

Last month the Baghdad Observer, an English-language daily, said: ''It is needless to mention the readiness of students and youth to defend the Revolution and the country from the evils of enemies and conspirators.''

That statement appears to be supported by Mansour school students. When asked if they were willing to die for their nation, all said ''yes'' without hesitating.

A 10-year-old at the Mansour School says, ''The Iranian people want peace, but (the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) wants war.''

Iraqi officials distinguish between Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian people when describing the threat to Iraq. President Saddam Hussein reinforced this distinction when he invited Iranians to visit Iraq's holy shrines last month. The Baghdad government paid for the airfare and accommodations of dozens of Iranians who came. Several visitors praised Mr. Hussein for his generosity and appealed to the world community to support Iraq's call for peace.

More families are expected since Iraq has extended the invitation to play host to Iranians during the first 10 days of every month throughout the year.

Western diplomats here say Hussein's gesture has obvious internal propaganda value. But they also say the Iraqi President is genuinely attempting to end the conflict. They point out that Hussein has generally agreed to all of Iran's peace demands - except a call for his ouster.

''That condition is illogical,'' one diplomat says. But for Khomeini, it's been an obsession ever since he was expelled from Iraq in 1978.

Another diplomat predicts, ''If there were a minimum of goodwill a solution could be reached.''

Until such a time, students at the Mansour school will wear their military uniforms.

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