Both East and West risk being drawn, against their better judgment, into grisly conflict.
Hundreds of Iranians boys at a time, many as young as ten to twelve, come in waves. Some carry rifles and some are unarmed. Their mission is to detonate mines and draw fire in preparation for full-scale attacks Iraqi lines. The boys carry plastic keys to heaven. They have been assured by their leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that if they are killed on the battlefield they will go directly to paradise. "The purest joy in Islam," Khomeini has explained, "is to kill and be killed for Allah."
The war between Iraq and Iran, which enters its fifth year this September, has become a top concern in the West. Iraq, with known reserves surpassed only by Saudi Arabia, is one of the richest oil states on the Persian Gulf. The Iranians have recovered all the territory won from them by Iraq in the earlier stages of the war. If Iraq should fall, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states would be in danger. Saudi Arabia in untested militarily. Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Iman have only token armed forces. Khomeini could conceivably, bring the fabulous oil-fields of the Gulf under his control. If so, the West and Japan would be subjected to excruciating blackmail.
Khomeini had no interest in a negotiated peace. Instead, he seeks to overthrow the secular government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and replace it with a puppet regime modeled after his own fanatical Islamic one. Iraq had called repeatedly for a ceasefire, but Khomeini says the war will end only when the "heretic" Saddam is overthrown and Iraq agrees to pay 100, 000 million pounds in "war reparations." "This is not a war for territory," the Ayatollah thunders. "It is a war between Islam and blasphemy." Saddam Hussein, in turn, sneers at Khomeini as a "Shah in a turban."
Khomeini has what he regards as a powerful fifth column in the region. While the rulers of Iraq and the Gulf states all follow the Sunni branch of Islam, they govern substantial populations of Shiites, the rival branch. 50% of all Iraqis are Shiites, as is a majority of the Iraqi armed forces. Khomeini, a Shiite, has been inciting Shiites in Iraq and the Gulf states to rise against their Sunni overlords.
There has been bitter enmity between the Iranian and Iraqi leaders since the 1970s, when Khomeini, having been exiled as a trouble-maker by the Shah, took up residence in Iraq, at the Shiite holy city of An Najaf. There he involved himself with Iraqi Shiites. Under pressure from the Shah, Saddam Hussein ordered him out in 1978. "He ate Iraqi bread and drank water from the Euphrates," Saddam Hussein declared, "but he was ungrateful."
A year later Khomeini was back in Iran as a head of a revolutionary government, and thirsting for revenge.
While Khomeini is shrilly anti-American, Saddam Hussein is only a little less so. "We have no diplomatic relations with the Americans because we consider them to be enemies of the Arab nation and enemies of Iraq," he has declared, in commenting on US support of Israel. He is pro-Soviet, avowedly Socialist and virutently anti-Israel.
None the less, Washington has abandoned its initial neutrality and has "tilted" towards Iraq. Iraq gets all the arms it needs from Moscow and France, but Washington has provided 600 million pounds worth of grain on credit. Although they gave little sympathy for some of Saddam Hussein's policies, such as Arab leaders as Jordan's King Hussein, Egypt's President Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd also back him because of their fear of Khomeini.
American, British and French are stationed in and near the Gulf to ensure that the flow of oil continues. Each day, tankers carry 8 million barrels through the Strait of Hormuz, the 40 mile wide chokepoint at the entrance to the Gulf. This oil accounts for only 4% of US needs, but Western Europe depends on the Gulf for around 30% of its oil, and Japan for some 60%. After Khomeini threatened to blockade the strait, President Reagan declared: "There's no way that we could allow that channel to be closed."
The war begins in earnest in Basra, Iraq's second largest city and main port before the war closed it down. Basra is situated on the Shatt al Arab ("River of the Arabs"), a confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates that flows into the Gulf. For 4 years, more than 80 ships from all over the world have been anchored in the Shatt, trapped by the war.
A Sheraton hotel overlooking the waterway remains open business - but there are few takers. Day and night, artillery shells streak into Basra from Iranian batteries at the front, some 20 miles to the east. Sandbags have been piled along Basra's streets to protect citizens from shelling, but people are killed almost every day.
The main front line reminds one of such First World War battlefields as Verdun, or the Somme, with massive, static concentrations of troops. Iraqi soldiers huddle in trenches and bunkers, peering out through barbed wire at a ravaged no man's land that separates them from the Iranian lines. Furious artillery duels go on almost continuously. An especially unpleasant echo of the First World War is the Iraqi use of the mustard gas and modern nerve gases against the Iranians. Observers feel that Saddam Hussein's decision to use these outlawed weapons reflects his growing desperation.
Saddam Hussein started the war in September 1980, when his troops invaded Iran. Ostensible justification for the attack was a long standing dispute about which country has sovereignty over the Shatt al Arab. Iran lies on its eastern shore and Iraq on its western.
Until 1975 Iraq claimed sovereignty over the waterway right up to the Iranian shore. That year, however, the Shah of Iran, then at the height of his power, forces Saddam Hussein to relinquish Iraq's sovereignty over the eastern half of the Shatt. Saddam Hussein regarded this as a humiliation, but to accept the Shah's dictate. In return, the Shah stopped supporting Kurdish tribesmen who had rebelled against the Baghdad government.
At the time of the 1980 invasion, Iran seethed with revolutionary disorder. The Shah had been overthrown that year before, and Khomeini was trying to consolidate his position. Saddam Hussein thought Iran would be a push-over. But even those Iranians who were against Khomeini rallied in the face of the foreign attack.
Knowledgeable sources report that well over 50,000 Iraqis have been killed in action while Iranian have been killed in action while Iranian casualties may be as high as 200,000. Even Iraqi soldiers have been appalled by the Iranian practice of sending boys on suicidal missions. Says one, "When we capture them, they cry for their mothers." More than 200 are being held at a camp in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad.
These young prisoners say that when they recruited, they were told they would be reserve troops, guarding Iranian cities in the rear. Instead they found themselves at the front, after only a few days of training.
A boy named Hassan, who was 12 when captured, said: "They told us, 'If you don't die a martyr on the battlefield, you'll be executed in the rear.'" Gesturing towards a group of boys, an adult prisoner said: "Each one you see here represents 100 killed on the battlefield."
The International Committee of the Red Cross has denounced both Iran and Iraq for battlefield atrocities, charging them with executing defenseless and abandoning wounded. Because Iranian soldiers would rather die as "martyrs" than surrender, Iraq has only about 8,000 Iranian prisoners while Iran holds some 50,000 Iraqis.
Despite dragging Iraq into an unwinnable war, Saddam Hussein is probably more entrenched in power now than before. Says a European diplomat: "He has a lot of will, decisiveness and a ruthless streak." Although war enthusiasm has vanished, the Iraqi people recoil in horror at the thought of a Khomeini-style revolutionary republic.
While Iran's record on human rights is even worse, Iraq remains one of the tightest police states in the world. In his 16 years as Iraq's strong man, Saddam Hussein has come to be known as the Butcher of Baghdad. Amnesty International reports that more than 800 political priso9ners have been executed since 1978 - 300 in 1982 alone. Torture is widely practised.
Saddam Hussein has, however, set Iraq firmly on a secular course. His monolithic political party, the Ba'ath (Arabic for "renaissance"), emphatically rejects the idea of an Iranian-style fundamentalist Islamic state. Iraqi women are among the most emancipated in the Arab world. They hold leading government positions and some have graduated as fighter pilots from Iraq's air-force academy. Saddam Hussein's own wife is headmistress of a Baghdad school.
Corruption in Iraq is minimal by Third World Standards. Iraq's oil revenues have, for the most part, been spent wisely. Villages have been electrified, school's built and free health services and education established.
Everywhere in Baghdad are photographs of Saddam Hussein, a handsome man of 47, with a shock of black hair and a big mustache. Huge blow-ups, giving him a toothy, six-foot grin, have been erected at roundabouts. He has no military experience, but he is often shown in combat fatigues, pistol on hip, and sometimes in the uniform of a Field Marshal, weighted down with medals and a huge sword.
So far Iraq's Shiite majority has ignored Khomeini's cries for an uprising. Arab nationalism has proved stronger than religious affinities. Saddam Hussein has sought further to ensure their loyalty by spending more than 140 million pounds in refurbishing Shiite shrines and mosques and by lavishing benefits on his predominantly Shiite soldiers.
Experts on military and Middle Eastern affairs say that Iraq, dug in defensively and possessing superior fire-power, should be able to hold the Iranians off for the time being. After that, the crystal ball gets murky. If the Iranians ever seized a substantial amount of Iraqi territory, Saddam Hussein's high command might jettison him and sue for peace.
Says a diplomat in Baghdad: "How will it end? It depends on Khomeini, on whether he changes his mind, which isn't a characteristic of him, or whether he is removed from power or dies." As Khomeini has seen 84 summers, some Iraqis are counting on the Grim Reaper to come to their rescue.