Iraq Hedges Bets in Rebuilding Gulf Ports. AFTERMATH OF WAR: ENSURING ACCESS TO THE GULF

GROVES of date palms line the Iraqi bank of the Shatt al Arab waterway from Basra to Faw on the Gulf coast. Intermittent rows of palms have their tops shot off - the scars of the battles that raged there a year ago, when Iraq mounted an all-out assault to expel Iranian forces entrenched there since 1986. In some areas of Faw, all that remain are blackened stumps. The battles - some of the largest fought since the World Wars - ended last August when a UN-sponsored cease-fire went into effect.

Iran's aim on the southern front was not so much Basra, an official in Iraq's Ministry of Planning suggests, but Umm Qasr, a port near Kuwait's border. Iran at one point held the mouth of the Shatt al Arab and part of the Faw Peninsula. Had it been able to move further west and seize Umm Qasr, it would have held all Iraqi territory that fronts on the Gulf. ``They tried, but they couldn't move past our defenses,'' the official says.

Now Iraq is determined to avoid the threat of being cut off from the Gulf again, and is demanding restored sovereignty over the entire Shatt al Arab waterway as part of a new peace accord with Iran.

But Iraq is hedging its bets. It is upgrading several of its previously secondary ports, including Umm Qasr, the oil loading terminal at al-Baqr, and al-Maaqal. For now, the Iraqi officials say, those ports will remain satellites. Reconstruction efforts will concentrate on Basra, a 1,400-year-old city which officials say ``remains of great historic importance to Iraq and the Arabs.''

Iraq has also announced plans to deepen and expand the Khor Abdullah channel which runs parallel to the Shatt al Arab and terminates at Khor al-Zubair. Iraq's first oil export shipment via the Gulf since the war went out on March 31 via Khor al-Zubair. As that channel is not as deep as the Shatt al-Arab and therefore cannot take big ships which have heavy cargoes, the oil is being shuttled out in small batches to the Jebel Ali storage facility in Dubai for reshipment to Japan.

Even if an agreement were reached with Iran, dredging and restoration of the silted-in Shatt al Arab would take about two years. Iraq would like that work to start now under UN auspices, while talks proceed on the thorny issue of sovereignty. In order to exert pressure, Iraqi officials at the UN have warned that if they cannot use the Shatt al Arab then neither will Iran - and have suggested that Iraq may then permanently divert enough water from the Shatt al Arab to establish a deep channel via Khor al-Zubair and Khor Abdullah to ensure its access to the Gulf. That, they say, would render the Iranian ports of Abadan and Khorramshahr unusable.

Whatever access Iraq uses to the Gulf, it remains dependent on good relations with its neighbors. A corner of Khor Abdullah passes under Kuwaiti sovereignty - and despite recent close cooperation during the Gulf war, Iraq and Kuwait were at the brink of war over disputed territory as recently as 1973. As insurance, Iraq is also expanding its pipeline system.

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