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Iraqis Defy World on Use of Poison Gas

March 23, 1986|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen has written on the Middle East for many years.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — A week after a United Nations commission of inquiry affirmed that the Iraqi army had made extensive use of mustard gas against Iranian troops engaged in their "Dawn Eight" offensive, the Iraqi government has not responded publicly. This is in line with Iraq's unrepentant attitude toward its use of chemical weapons.

When the Iranians first accused the Iraqis in 1984 of using poison gas in one of the early battles for the Hawizah marshes, the Iraqis did issue denials and even made counteraccusations against their enemy. An international inquiry found the evidence not conclusive and so did not name Iraq as the perpetrator. This time, however, the evidence is abundant and conclusive on Iraq's violation of the 1925 Geneva protocol prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. And yet the Iraqis remain dismissively defiant.

Privately, however, the Iraquis defend their actions. They say that, in the first place, Iran is the aggressor that pushed Iraq into the war. There is ample evidence, in fact, that the initial act of aggression was not the Iraqi army's advance across the international frontier in September, 1980. For nine months before then, from the first weeks of the new Islamic republic, Iran had indulged in aggression against Iraq through propaganda, organized and violent subversion and cross-border bombardments.

On the issue of who was the original aggressor, Iraq has long since lost the battle for world public opinion, because of the usual Arab ineptitude in propaganda. But more than one Western ambassador in Baghdad seems sure that Iraq could present a convincing case to any international inquiry into the origins of the war--even though, so far, it is the Iranians who have been demanding it.

On the other hand, the Iraqis have been able to convince public opinion that, whoever began the war, it is definitely the Iranians who insist on keeping it going. The Iranians have rejected every peace plan put forward by any number of mediators--by the nonaligned, the Islamic countries and the United Nations itself though Sweden's late, lamented Olof Palme. For some time now it has been the Iranians who have been thrusting ever deeper into Iraqi national territory. In those offensives the Iranians, exploiting their thrice-greater manpower, have used the mass tactic of the human wave, which the Iraqis have difficulty countering despite their superiority in weaponry and firepower.

The Iraqis argue that they have to cope with a geographic as well as a demographic disadvantage. Almost all their main centers of population are quite close to the frontier with Iran, which makes them vulnerable to even a small Iranian advance. For instance, in the recent Al Faw peninsula battle, once the Iranians advanced a mere two miles and crossed the Shatt al Arab estuary, they were immediately in a position to threaten both Basra, Iraq's second city, and the international highway to Kuwait, Iraq's sole land link to the whole gulf area.

So, the Iraqis declare, the country that began and continues the war cannot complain if Iraq is obliged to use weapons of mass destruction against mass suicide attacks, which have to be stopped just as soon as they start lest the Iranians very quickly achieve targets of vital national importance to Iraq.

Nor, the Iraqis say, does the rest of the world have any right to condemn them. Having tried and failed to persuade Iran to stop the war, which Iraq is ready to do today, they should understand Iraq's attempts to so punish the Iranians that they accept a cease-fire.

The Iraqis argue that they have used one of the lesser weapons of mass destruction, one of World War I vintage, while other nations are willing and prepared to use the latest and greatest of such weapons on an infinitely more horrendous scale. It is well known that NATO field commanders in Europe might use tactical nuclear weapons, with which they have been equipped, if their troops were in danger of being overrun by the larger conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact. This is why NATO has refused to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons. Therefore if NATO members like the United States and Britain condemn Iraq in a Security Council debate on the mustard-gas report, they would be throwing stones from glass houses, in the Iraqis' eyes.

The Iraqis conclude that the Iranians have a very simple way of stopping their soldiers from being gassed. All they have to do is to pull their troops back across the international frontier, as the United Nations and all the many peacemakers have repeatedly asked them to do, and which Iraq, of its own will, did in 1984-85.

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