The Vicious War

In war, desperation leads to escalation. Three weeks ago Iraq broke an eight-month-old agreement negotiated under U.N. auspices and sent its air force to attack Iranian cities. Iran immediately responded by firing rockets at urban areas in Iraq. So far as is known, no military targets have been hit in these exchanges, and probably none have even been seriously aimed at. The expansion of the war has instead been a deliberately indiscriminate effort to terrorize and demoralize civilians.

If Iraq had any military objective in spreading the conflict to its enemy's heartland, Western intelligence officials think, it was to goad Iran into trying yet again to gain ground in what has long since become a stalemated war. That in any case is what happened. Iran committed heavy forces in an attempted move to sever the strategic Baghdad-Basra highway. The well-entrenched and much-better-armed Iraqis, even while suffering substantial casualties themselves, stopped the offensive and killed, wounded or captured tens of thousands of Iranians. In the process, American officials say, Iraq for the second known time in the conflict used poison gas, in flagrant violation of an international covenant to which it is a signatory.

The United States has again called on Iran to accept a negotiated settlement to the war thathas now gone on for 4 1/2 years. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gave his usual conditional response. Iran will agree to negotiate only after Iraq's President Saddam Hussein is deposed, and only after Iraq agrees to pay massive reparations for the war that it launched. Until then, Iran will continue sending its willing young men to die for the cause.

There is no reason to doubt Khomeini's determination, or the fanaticism of those prepared tosacrifice themselves at his bidding. Iran's population is three times Iraq's. This apparently is what gives Khomeini confidence that in a war of attrition the odds must ultimately be on his side. Perhaps. But an abundance of troops, no matter how ready they may be to die, is not necessarily the conclusive consideration in warfare.

Iraq has already demonstrated that it has better access than does its enemy to foreign weapons--from France, from the Soviet Union, from Egypt and others. It also can command more capital, in direct aid from Saudi Arabia and other rich Persian Gulf states and now, as it prepares to increase its oil exports through a new pipeline across Turkey, from its own resources. It is also prepared to pit ruthlessness against fanaticism, as its recourse to poison gas and civilian terror-bombing shows.

Iran, meanwhile, grows increasingly strapped for cash. Its oil exports and other trade have been cut by Iraqi attacks on shipping in the gulf. Now another main line of communications with the rest of the world has been severed, under Iraq's threat to attack any planes in Iranian air space.

Still, Hussein remains far from having the upper hand. Iraq's own rising casualties do nothing to boost his domestic popularity or secure his rule, and repeated "victories" in the field count for little against an opponent confident enough or crazy enough not to give up. Hussein started a war that he quickly discovered he couldn't win and soon thereafter found he couldn't end. And so once again he has gone back to the desperate expedients of using outlawed weapons on the battlefield and bringing death and destruction to the cities of Iran. There is no reason to think that these vicious gambits will be any more decisive than anything else that he has tried.

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