DESPITE Washington's silence on an Iraqi request for agreement on measures to avoid military incidents in the Gulf region, Iraqi officials are still pressing for a reply. Iraq wants the United States to update an 1987 agreement to avert war starting by accident. But so far, Iraqi sources say, the US has ignored the request.
Officials here and international figures visiting Iraq, have repeatedly warned that an all-out war could be triggered by a single incident unless there are consultations to limit the repercussions of an air force or naval accident.
Such consultations existed between the US and Iraq on the basis of an agreement signed by the two sides Aug. 17, 1987, three months after Iraqi warplanes accidentally hit a US naval vessel, the Stark, with Excocet missiles.
Iraq publicly apologized for the accident, which killed 37 people, and later conducted consultations with the US on troop activities in the Gulf region to avoid accidents.
The Stark incident could have started a serious confrontation had it not been that Iraq and the US had no political interest in a war at that time.
According to a well-placed Western military expert in the region, the 1987 agreement involved a setup whereby Iraqi pilots used special call signals to identify themselves to the US Navy. Call signals were used instead of blips so that Iraqi pilots could not be tracked by Iranian forces.
But the expert said that updating the 1987 agreement was now unrealistic.
``Such an agreement involves an exchange of information and this is simply not possible at this stage,'' says the expert adding that both sides are afraid of deception.
A US State Department source confirms the receipt of Iraq's Aug. 21 proposal to revive contacts under a 1987 accord. But the source said the request was ignored in part because US officials suspected Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might seek to use an agreement as a means of shifting blame to the US for any incident leading to war.
Internationally recognized procedures already exist for avoiding incidents in the air, at sea, and on the ground. US officials say it was thus unnecessary to respond to what they viewed, in effect, as a request for information on US military movements in the Gulf region.
Various other Middle East specialists argue that it would be counterproductive for the US to resume bilateral talks under the 1987 agreement since under the new conditions of the Gulf crisis, the goal of US policy in the region is to keep Saddam off guard.
The US and its allies, including Egypt, have stepped up the pressure on Iraq to force its withdrawal from Kuwait, rejecting the idea of negotiations or even dialogue with the Iraqi leadership.
In Iraq's view, the more time that elapses without a military confrontation the more hope there is for a political solution. The solution, they say, should tackle all the problems of the region as well as Iraqi security and economic interests in the event of partial withdrawal from Kuwait.
Iraqi officials, however, are keen not to give a pretext for a US-led attack as they try to win international support for a negotiated settlement. But an accident that could trigger war, or be used by the US as a pretext to attack Iraq, will undermine Baghdad's efforts to secure support for negotiations, these officials say.
``Once negotiations to tackle all problems in the region started everything is negotiable,'' an Iraqi official said when asked if Kuwait's freedom was negotiable.
Pending such negotiations or dialogue, any accident can cancel all political calculations. The US has made no effort to encourage consultations since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2.
To the contrary, it sent an aide-m'emoire Aug. 15 to the Iraqi government, warning that any Iraqi waterborne craft and military aircraft should stay clear of US forces.
The note said any Iraqi aircraft operating in a threatening manner, illuminating US forces or locking on with radars, would be viewed as hostile and warranting defensive measures.
On Aug. 21 Iraq responded with a six-point note, making similar warnings. The note, however, referred to attacks or hostile acts from any party, implying that foreign and Arab forces in the Gulf region are included. Thus, a wrong move by the Egyptian or Syrian forces could be viewed as a hostile act by Iraq.
The incident of a French patrol that reportedly lost its way and ventured into Iraqi territories is, however, an example that such accidents can be contained by a political decision. Iraq chose not to make an issue out of an otherwise dangerous incident and handed over the French soldiers to their embassy in Baghdad. As diplomats noted, Iraq would have been in an awkward position if the patrol had been American.
``Even if Baghdad did not have a decision to go to war, it would have had to view it as a hostile act in the light of the continuing American threats,'' says an Arab diplomat.
The Iraqi note, therefore, proposed a meeting of experts for the two sides to avoid accidents ``under the new circumstances.''
An Iraqi official said that Iraq was still waiting for a response.
But as a Western diplomat put it: ``I would figure that the only answer the US would like to give is for Iraq to get out of Kuwait, if it wanted to avoid a war.''