Iraq Seen Pressing Air War Until Iranians Talk Peace

Times Staff Writer

Iraq, emboldened by a major combat victory in its war against Iran, appears intent on continuing its air raids against civilian targets in Iran as long as the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini refuses to negotiate for peace, U.S. officials said Friday.

But there is no sign that the bombing attacks--or the crushing defeat the Iranians suffered on the ground this week--have softened Khomeini's rejection of peace talks, the officials said.

"The Iranians got their tails kicked," a State Department analyst said. "But has it made them more ready for peace? We don't see it yet."

On Friday, according to reports from the region, Iraq's warplanes bombed three Iranian cities and flew over Tehran, the capital, apparently without attacking it. Iranian forces were said to have shelled 10 Iraqi border towns, including residential suburbs of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and principal port.

Iran again charged that Iraq used chemical weapons in the recent battle for a key highway and sent 33 of its soldiers to European hospitals for treatment. In West Germany, medical specialists who examined 13 of the soldiers told Reuters news agency that they appeared to be victims of mustard gas.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Iranian officials charged that Iraq's use of poison gas in five recent battles sent about 200 Iranian soldiers to the hospital.

"Iranian experts have carried out an investigation and they believe that cyanide, phosphorus and mustard gas have been used" in the attacks, the letter charged.

Iraq has denied using chemical weapons. A U.S. official said the evidence was still incomplete and that if Iraq did use such weapons, the use did not appear to have been widespread. State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said the United States "condemns the illegal use of chemical weapons in violation of international laws and agreements, whenever and wherever it occurs."

The ground battle began March 11 when more than 20,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Khomeini's politically militant irregular troops, were ferried by boat through the marshes near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and landed in Iraqi territory on the west bank of the Tigris.

The Iranians, apparently taking the Iraqis by surprise, seized a section of the strategic highway that connects Basra to the capital, Baghdad, U.S. officials said.

Thousands Reported Killed

Iraqi troops supported by superior armor and artillery succeeded in pushing the Iranians back--but only after four days of fierce fighting that killed many thousands of soldiers on both sides. Iraq claims to have killed about 30,000 Iranians.

"We had been confident that the Iraqis could turn back anything the Iranians could throw at them, but it sure took them a while to get organized," one official said. "The Iraqis were in trouble there for a couple of days."

He said the performance of the Iraqi air force had also surprised American analysts. "They're still firing from altitudes too high to give them much accuracy," he said. "Their pilots don't seem to enjoy taking risks."

Iraq has said its air raids against Iranian cities have been directed only at military and economic targets, but U.S. officials said they were also hitting civilian areas. The officials said the Iraqis appear to have concluded that the raids are an effective way to use the military advantage of their superior air force against Iran.

Iran has appealed for a moratorium on attacks against civilian targets--but has also retaliated by attacking Iraqi cities with long-range artillery and, according to Iranian spokesmen, ground-to-ground missiles.

Missile for Baghdad

Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, said Friday at a Muslim prayer service in Tehran that another surface-to-surface missile would "soon be fired" at Baghdad. "These missiles, their numbers are so great that we shall make use of them to the end of the war," Rafsanjani said in his remarks, as quoted by the official Iranian news agency.

But few analysts believe that the escalating attacks against civilians will hasten an end to the 4 1/2-year-old war, at least in the short run. "Khomeini has made two speeches in the last few days,and there's no sign of any moderation in them," the State Department analyst said. "They were calls to keep fighting despite the reverses."

"It's a mistake to think attacks on civilian areas can soften the position of the Iranian government," said Shaul Bakhash, an exiled Iranian scholar at the Smithsonian Institution's Wilson Center in Washington.

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