THE psychological war between Iraq and the West has been stepped up, with the Baghdad government hoping it can divide and weaken the ranks of countries lined up against it. Iraqi authorities are continuing to detain Westerners - both in Iraq and Kuwait - and transport them to installations that are potential targets in any military strike from outside. The Iraqis hope these hostages will provide a human ``shield'' to deter a US-led attack.
The task of finding out where the foreigners have been taken falls to diplomats in Kuwait City and Baghdad. Their job ``is far from easy,'' explains a senior official of a Western government. They are working in a difficult and hostile climate, trying to keep tabs on their nationals who have been rounded up. The Iraqis will not help them, and any information comes from sources on the ground.''
``[The diplomats'] task is complicated further,'' the official adds, ``because the foreigners are almost certainly being moved around from place to place.''
The result is that the picture of the hostages' situation is far from clear, and seems certain to become still murkier.
The British government, for example, was able to ascertain by the middle of this week that 21 of its citizens had been moved to ``military compounds'' in Kuwait and Iraq, while 76 were in ``civilian areas.'' But diplomats had been unable to trace the remaining 40 Britons who had been rounded up by Iraqi authorities.
Western governments are reluctant to make public the exact locations where their nationals are being held. But analysts say the assumption must be that air bases, radar tracking stations, missile sites, and the defense ministry in Baghdad will be high on the list of potential military targets for any attacking force.
As for civilian installations, diplomatic sources say it is known that Westerners are being held close to a chemical plant and a munitions factory near Baghdad. Some foreigners, they add, will certainly have been placed near oil refineries and power stations.
The Iraqi authorities have said ``all modern facilities'' are being provided at the ``vital installations'' to ensure the comfort of foreigners moved there.
``You should take that with more than just a pinch of salt,'' comments a British diplomat with experience in Iraq. ``What facilities will there be for women and children at a munitions factory? There is bound to be very considerable hardship for them - quite apart from the potential danger.''
Last Sunday Iraqis instructed Westerners in Kuwait to report to three hotels in the capital. Only a handful obeyed the order: The majority followed advice from embassies in the city to stay at home and keep a low profile.
Western officials say it now appears the Iraqis have completed the task of removing foreigners from various hotels, and have begun the task of finding and rounding up the remainder of the Western community.
British diplomats in Kuwait reported that among the first group of Britons to be taken at gunpoint from their house was a couple and their two children, aged 4 and 18 months.
The Baghdad government has ordered Iraqi citizens (and it includes Kuwaitis in this category) to help authorities track down Westerners. It has threatened ``the severest of punishments'' for anyone not cooperating.
With the net of the Iraqi authorities widening, the diplomats' job has become harder still. But beginning this weekend, the monitoring of the movement of foreigners in Kuwait is likely to become all but impossible. The Baghdad government has ordered the 64 diplomatic missions in Kuwait to close by tonight.
Although the United States and many European countries have said they will refuse to obey the instruction as a matter of principle, observers in the region say their ability to function normally will be lost.
While there is international outrage at the seizure of Western hostages, Western resolve to stand firm has not been shaken.
``The Iraqis would say: `not yet,''' says an Arab professor in the Gulf. ``They believe that if they can hold steady and make this period of no-war, no-peace, drag out for as long as possible, then nerves in Western countries will eventually begin to crack.''
The hope of Iraqi leaders, analysts say, is that the focus of concern will move gradually away from the fate of Kuwait to the fate of the hostages. All the while, Baghdad will direct emotional appeals to the US to open a dialogue ``for the sake of world peace.''
Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz did as much last Tuesday when he addressed Western reporters in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Dialogue could lead to the freeing of Westerners, he said.
Analysts predict there will be more such appeals to Western public opinion in the coming days. They add, however, that the public statements from Baghdad are targeted also at popular opinion within the Arab world. The Iraqis want to deflect the attention of the Arab audience from the issue of Kuwait to that of Iraq's confrontation with the US and other ``Western aggressors'' in the Gulf.
Some Arab commentators say the West is taking a risk by getting involved in this war of nerves. The London-based Saudi newspaper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, says military action should be taken before Iraqi psychological tactics begin to succeed. ``Delaying the military confrontation,'' it writes,''is likely to prolong the period in which the Iraqi regime can pursue its propaganda campaign to mislead Arab opinion.''
To which, a Western diplomat in the Gulf says, ``add [mislead] Western opinion, too.''