POW dispute stymies Gulf peace process. Iranian refusal to return all `wounded' halts first forward step after cease-fire

After halting a prisoner-of-war exchange on Sunday in a dispute over its terms, Iran and Iraq apparently are digging in their heels. The collapse of the exchange is seen by diplomatic observers as a potentially significant setback to the broader peace process.

United Nations-backed peace talks in Geneva have been stalled since they began following the Aug. 20 Gulf war cease-fire. Analysts were hoping that a successful exchange of wounded POWs on humanitarian grounds might provide a first step toward building a level of trust between the two long-time foes.

Instead, differences in interpretations in the POW exchange have magnified the distrust between Baghdad and Tehran, threatening to send the entire process back to square one.

The cause of the breakdown, diplomatic and other sources say, is a disagreement between Iran and Red Cross representatives. Iran maintains that prisoners whose injuries or illnesses have healed during the course of their captivity are no longer eligible for release under the terms of the 1949 Geneva Convention. They also say some POWS have asked for asylum.

The exchange of 1,158 Iraqis and 411 Iranians under medical treatment in POW camps ground to a halt when it became apparent that Iran was sending back fewer POWS than called for in the agreement. Iraq then cut back on the number of POWs it released.

Representatives of the Red Cross are optimistic that a solution can be found.

``We expect to have some result soon,'' says Carlos Bauverd, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

He notes that talks are under way in both Tehran and Baghdad and that the DC-10 aircraft the Red Cross has designated for the exchange is being kept on stand-by.

Diplomatic and other analysts say at least three issues must be resolved for exchanges to resume:

Whether Iran will release all prisoners previously classified by the Red Cross as sick and wounded.

Whether Iran will make all former Iraqi POWs living in Iran available to the Red Cross to verify that they are alive and that their decision to seek asylum is voluntary.

And whether Iraq will decide to continue to hold Iranian POWs in proportion to the number of Iraqi prisoners who opt for political asylum in Iran.

The exchange was to involve only a tiny portion of the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Iraqi POWs in Iran and the estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Iranian POWs held in Iraq. An overall exchange is to be considered as part of Iran-Iraq peace talks in accord with UN Resolution 598.

Under the agreement, Iran first was to have traded 115 Iraqi POWs for 41 Iranian POWs under Red Cross supervision. But the first Red Cross flight from Tehran carried only 52 war prisoners. When Iraqi officials realized that, they freed only 19 Iranian POWs.

The same thing happened during the second and third exchanges on Nov. 26 and Nov. 27. In total, Iran released 155 POWs instead of the 345 called for at that point in the schedule. Iraq released 56 POWs instead of 123.

Red Cross officials maintain that under the Geneva Convention - of which both Iran and Iraq are signatories - Iran was obligated to release all seriously wounded POWs at the time they were originally captured. (This principle was recognized at times by both Iran and Iraq during the eight years of fighting. Some 690 wounded Iraqis and 610 wounded Iranians were repatriated earlier.)

According to Radio Tehran, of the first batch of 115 Iraqi POWs slated for release, 21 were deemed to have recovered from their wounds. The Radio Tehran report added that 27 of the 115 had already been released from POW camps and were presumed living in Iran. It said that an additional 15 Iraqi POWs recently requested political asylum in Iran.

Mr. Bauverd of the Red Cross confirmed that some Iraqi POWs had asked for political asylum. But he declined to say how many. He stressed that the Red Cross would never force a prisoner of war seeking asylum to return home against his will.

But he noted that the Red Cross must be given the opportunity to interview such POWs privately to ensure that their requests are genuine. He said that Iran had failed to make POWs available for such meetings.

Iran has taken the position that it is justified in cutting down the number of POWs to be returned to Iraq, but that Iraq is not justified in responding by reducing the number of Iranian prisoners to be returned to Iran. Iran has demanded that the additional 67 Iranian POWs be released before it will release any more Iraqis.

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