Iraq's foreign minister, making his first appearance Wednesday at U.N.-sponsored talks aimed at ending his country's long war with Iran, declared Iraq's "firm and sincere" position that the negotiations must be face to face, a condition that Iran has refused to meet.
On his way into the second of two meetings that he held with U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz said, "Iraq shall not allow (itself) to be stampeded to reach (a cease-fire) or to make a hasty step under the present circumstances."
Aziz said his government wants "real peace--durable and comprehensive"--but doubts Iran's intentions.
"We shall seek guarantees, and we believe that the first step and the starter for constructive work is face-to-face negotiations between the two parties. . . ," Aziz said.
"If the Iranians do not accept that formula, that means that they are not sincere about peace. . . ."
Iran, abandoning its long-held position, agreed last week to conduct peace talks with Iraq under the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, which called for a cease-fire a year ago. The Iranians, however, refuse to conduct face-to-face talks, making it necessary for Perez de Cuellar to meet separately with each side's envoy.
The secretary general, speaking to reporters Wednesday, tried to play down the issue, saying that he would have no difficulty in conducting the talks either directly or indirectly, although he noted that the Iraqis consider face-to-face negotiations "indispensable."
U.S. Ambassador Vernon A. Walters predicted that both sides will eventually sit down at the same table.
"I think peace is their interest and they're going to do it," Walters said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who arrived before his counterpart, had already held two lengthy sessions with the secretary general Tuesday in advance of Wednesday's set of indirect talks, in which Perez de Cuellar saw Velayati twice and Aziz once.
Will Study Reactions
After his second session with Velayati, Perez de Cuellar told reporters that he will spend much of today studying the two sides' reactions to his proposals, which he has not publicized. The indirect meetings will continue Friday, he said.
The issue of U.S. and foreign hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian terrorists, although not officially a part of the peace talks, gained more prominence Wednesday as Perez de Cuellar acknowledged the importance of the problem. He said he has been "constantly in touch" with Ambassador Walters about the American hostages, and he raised the subject with Velayati in their talks Tuesday.
"Don't forget that I have as well a couple of hostages," the secretary general said, referring to U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, who was serving as a member of the U.N. Truce Supervisory Organization when he was kidnaped in Lebanon earlier this year, and Alec Collett, a Briton temporarily employed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees who disappeared in Lebanon in 1985.
In Persian Gulf War fighting Wednesday, Iran launched a counteroffensive against Iraqi forces on their southern front, and a fierce seesaw battle was said to be raging over towns to the north.
With the tentative peace talks under way in New York, both sides appeared to be trying to make battlefield adjustments that they hope will be reflected in the terms of any settlement.
Committed to Cease-Fire
Diplomats in the gulf region expressed the belief that despite the ferocity of the fighting, Iran and Iraq are both still committed to the U.N. cease-fire resolution that they have agreed to observe.
Iran said that before dawn Wednesday, units of its paramilitary Revolutionary Guards attacked Iraqi forces occupying Iranian territory in the south and drove them across the border, killing or wounding 1,200.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency said that about 12 square miles of Iranian territory had been liberated in the area north of Khorramshahr, which lies just east of the Iraqi city of Basra. It was here that the first fighting took place when Iraq invaded Iran in September, 1980.
Iran said its warplanes bombed Iraqi troop concentrations in the fighting.
"We are witnessing the complete defeat of the Iraqi forces on the southern front as well as the western fronts," Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, was quoted as saying. He is also acting commander in chief of Iran's armed forces.
Iraq made no mention Wednesday of fighting on the southern front but said Iraqi forces had shot down an Iranian F-5 fighter-bomber in that area.
The Iraqi government has said that its forces, which crossed into Iran last Friday, have moved back across the border. The Iraqi high command said 12,200 Iranians were taken prisoner in the last week. Iran is believed to hold about 50,000 Iraqi prisoners; until the first of this year, Iran reportedly had only 12,000 Iranian prisoners.
The U.N. Security Council's cease-fire resolution calls for a prisoner exchange, and the Iraqis have said they want to achieve a balance in the numbers of prisoners before any such exchange.
On the central front, Iran conceded that the town of Eslamabad had been retaken by Iraqi troops and Iranian rebel forces. Earlier, Iran had said that its troops drove out Iranian rebels who had taken the town Tuesday.
Rebels Claim Control
The rebel National Liberation Army of Iran, which is based in Iraq and supported by that country, said in a statement issued Wednesday in Baghdad that its troops control Eslamabad and that "all claims by the Iranian regime to the contrary are false." It said its forces also hold nearby Karand.