Iran, Iraq: Old Foes Warm Up

POW exchange began over the weekend. But barriers to real dtente remain.

The endless wet mud flats of Iraq's Fao Peninsula are marked with crumbling trenches and battlefield berms, and point to one bleak fact of Iraq's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s: to fight this war was an agony.

Its severity is still very evident today, as Iraq and Iran take their first cautious steps toward rapprochement. Iraqis and diplomats say that there are mutual tactical reasons now for dtente between the two giants of the Persian Gulf. At the moment, some 6,000 Iraqi prisoners of war are being released by Iran, most after more than a decade in captivity.

But with more than 1 million from both sides killed in the war, the list of differences is long and likely to prevent any strategic alliance. Iraq and Iran have been rivals for centuries, since Iraq served as the eastern anchor of the Ottoman Empire, against Persia.

Across this former battlefront, along the contested Shatt al-Arab waterway, the desolation speaks of total war: Entire forests of date palms have been burned or had their branches severed by the sheer volume of artillery fire.

Mile after mile, the trunks remain eerily standing, like a bed of nails that stretch as far as the eye can see.

One can almost hear the suction of tanks and armored vehicles stuck in the mud. The wet cold winters and sticky suffocating summers rich with insect life compounded the misery of those who fought in the trenches, World War I-style.

This wasteland today resembles postwar Verdun more than any modern battlefield, and along one stretch of road a small, makeshift memorial is fitting: Propped upon a rusting tank shell is a still-muddied helmet.

Effect of US presence

Though the eventual cease-fire of 1988 meant that no side had gained, Iraq and Iran are only now quietly working to improve relations. Iraq has been isolated since President Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, and were expelled by American-led forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

And Iran has for months sought to improve ties with all its neighbors, who have long been suspicious of the spread of Iran's Islamic revolution.

Added to the equation are US forces in the Gulf, which now number some 35,000 troops. Their presence disturbs both Iraq and Iran for different reasons, though they are there to "protect" oil-producing US allies such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar, and to enforce the American policy of "dual containment" against Iraq and Iran.

The new Iraq-Iran moves reflect a changing situation in the Middle East, however, that has brought Israel and Turkey into close military alliance, with America's blessing.

"The best policy for Iraq in the future would be dtente between Iraq, Iran, and Syria, to confront the new alliances," says Saad Naji Jawad, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad.

But, notes one diplomat, "here we have three partners with very different interests."

The American policy of containment has "helped push" Iraq and Iran together, Professor Jawad says, and the large US military presence in the Gulf means that "Iran feels threatened, too, because they know they are the second target."

Iraq has initiated several "let's make up" initiatives, but each time for political reasons. Shortly after its invasion of Kuwait, for example, it released thousands of Iranian prisoners of war from the Iran-Iraq war - all except one pilot, who was shot down over Iraq on the eve of hostilities and who Iraq held as evidence that it did not start the war - to enlist Iranian support. Then on the eve of the Gulf War, more than 100 Iraqi jet fighters flew to Tehran in a risky Iraqi gamble to preserve them from the allied air campaign.

Iran has never returned the planes, and the Islamic Republic still demands billions of dollars in compensation for damage done during the Iraq-Iran war, which began with an Iraqi invasion of Iranian territory and devolved into mutual destruction of oil facilities, indiscriminate air and missile attacks on main cities, and widespread use of chemical weapons, at first by Iraq.

Iran has three times the population, and is three times of the size of Iraq, and at the peak of hostilities each country fielded forces 1.6 million strong. Battlefield footage resembles scenes of war from a bygone, low-tech era, but Iraq and Iran carried on for eight years until virtually every family in both countries was affected.

The latest moves toward rapprochement began in December, when senior Iraqi officials were given red-carpet treatment in Tehran during the Islamic summit. Iran released some 500 POWs then as a gesture of goodwill, but has responded coolly as Iraq tried to open a new border crossing and pave the way for Shiite Muslim pilgrims from Iran to visit holy sites in Iraq.

The POW exchange will overcome one hurdle to better ties. Iran is releasing POWs from a nominal list of 8,132 presented to both sides by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has facilitated the handover. Iraq has released several hundred Iranian common-law prisoners and 62 "infiltrators" caught during the 1991 uprising in its south. It is rumored that up to 4,000 more Iraqi prisoners in Iran do not want to return home.

Tenuous ties

Iraqis note that during the February crisis over UN weapons inspections, when American forces were poised to strike Iraq, Iranian officials opposed any attack. After the POW exchange, Iran may begin official visits to Iraq's holy sites, and the bus links between Baghdad and Tehran - cut since the early days of the war - could resume shortly.

Despite this progress, other problems remain: border disputes, the question of Iraqi planes and war reparations, ties with different Kurdish factions in conflict in northern Iraq, and the existence of armed opposition groups based on either side of the border - paid for, armed, and used for political leverage by each country's intelligence services - all could cause the budding ties to unravel.

Iraq permits a 30,000-strong armed force of Iranian dissidents, called the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO), in militarized camps near the border. They broadcast anti-regime television and radio programs into Iran, and claim to have carried out some 600 "assistance operations" in Iran last year.

On the other side, Iran permits camps of the al-Badr Brigades, Iraqi dissidents who are Shiite Muslims and took part in the 1991 uprising of Shia Muslims in southern Iraq. MKO headquarters in Baghdad have come under mortar attack, and officials from both groups have been assassinated in the past or disappeared.

Analysts say that the militarized presence of these self-styled "guerrillas," though they are completely controlled by their respective masters in Baghdad and Tehran, is a real sticking point.

"Iran and Iraq both have an interest to improve their relations at the moment, but definitely these are tactical moves," says a senior diplomat. "To be strategic there need to be big changes in the region that include economic ones. Turkey must be included, or there must be a European Union-type agreement among all Gulf countries, which is not around the corner."

'Permanent questions'

Besides the immediate obstacles, he adds, are also many "permanent questions." Historically and geographically, these are the two main powers in the Gulf, "one is Arab and the other is Persian, both are big countries with resources, very strong ambition in the region, hegemonic, and this will be much more difficult to overcome," says the diplomat.

The election last May of Iran's new and relatively moderate president, Mohamad Khatami, has helped bring about rapprochement, notes Jawad. Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani had been the favored lieutenant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution - during the Iran-Iraq war.

"Iraq felt it was easier to deal with a new face, one not connected to the war," says Jawad. "But I don't think normal relations will begin in the near future. Everybody is trying to probe for reaction, to test the Gulf and US response. This is a trial period."

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