With the Pentagon still counting a rising toll of casualties, the Reagan Administration has mounted a concerted effort to prevent American anger at the Iraqi missile attack on a U.S. Navy ship from disrupting several years of steady improvement in Washington-Baghdad relations.
From the start, U.S. officials have accepted without question Iraq's explanation that the missile that blasted the frigate Stark on Sunday night in the Persian Gulf, killing 37 sailors and setting the ship ablaze, was fired by mistake. The Administration has even avoided criticism of the Iraqi pilot for failing to identify his target before firing the deadly missile.
And President Reagan on Tuesday attempted to shift the blame to Iraq's enemy in the 6 1/2-year-old Persian Gulf War, telling high school students in Chattanooga, Tenn.: "The villain in the piece really is Iran. They're delighted with what has just happened."
Once a strong contender for the title of Washington's least favorite nation, Iraq in recent years has tried hard to improve relations--an effort strongly encouraged by the United States. Mindful of Iraq's strategic location and its potential as a trading partner, the Administration is determined not to let the missile attack sink the prospects of closer ties.
"Both the Iraqis and the Americans have taken strong steps to try to mend fences recently," said Joyce Starr, director of the Near East program at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It would be a pity if these efforts went down the drain because of a stupid accident."
After years of bitter hostility, the United States and Iraq have established what one State Department official described as "a political dialogue and the beginning of a commercial relationship, which gives you the makings of a healthy bilateral relationship."
Washington and Baghdad restored full diplomatic relations Nov. 26, 1984, 17 years after Iraq ruptured relations during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
It has been a marriage of convenience on both sides. With its authoritarian government, doubtful human rights record and hostility toward Israel, Iraq has very little in common with the United States. Nevertheless, U.S. officials say, the regime is an important regional power that can have an impact on U.S. objectives in the Middle East.
Although the United States is officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq War, U.S. officials make little secret of a tilt toward Iraq. From the U.S. standpoint, an Iranian military victory could be catastrophic because it probably would spread Tehran's brand of radical Islamic fundamentalism throughout the strategic gulf region.
Although the word Baghdad is almost synonymous with Oriental intrigue, Starr said that Iraq was on the verge of emerging as a modern, Western-style nation when its progress was slowed by the war.
"If Iraq can pull itself out of the war, it will have a potential for a profitable business relationship with the United States," Starr said. "Its agriculture is good enough to feed itself; its people are highly educated. It is a developing country but very Western in its potential."
From the Iraqis' side, improved relations with the United States provide an attractive hedge to Iraq's relationship with the Soviet Union, which is its primary arms supplier. By maintaining good relations with Washington, the Iraqi regime is far less subject to manipulation by Moscow.
As recently as 1981, Iraq was on the U.S. list of nations that support international terrorism. But a State Department official said that during the last six years, the Baghdad government has "weaned itself away from terrorism," severing relations with the renegade Palestinian terrorist leader Abu Nidal and ending its active support for other terrorist groups.