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War Balance Shifts to Iran, Analysts Say

August 01, 1986|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — A growing number of Western military analysts believe that Iraq may eventually lose its war with Iran, an event that would send shock waves through the oil-rich but defenseless Arab nations along the Persian Gulf.

The analysts cautioned that it is still premature to predict outright defeat for Iraq, which is now in its sixth year of warfare with Iran. But the analysts were unanimous in their belief that the crucial "balance of morale" has swung sharply in Iran's favor in recent months.

"It's beginning to look like the Iraqis may lose," said British army Maj. Bob Elliott, of the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The Iraqis are not sufficiently able to get their act together to kick the Iranians out. They have a morale problem all the way up to the top."

There are reports circulating in diplomatic circles in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, that President Saddam Hussein has turned the prosecution of the war over to Iraq's general staff, removing himself and other leaders of the Arab Baath Socialist Party from the decision-making.

The action reportedly followed complaints from generals in the field that inept political interference was in part responsible for Iraq's recent military setbacks against the Iranians.

"Concerns are being expressed about the survivability of Saddam Hussein, and indications are that he may have stepped back from the decision-making," William J. Olson, a civilian analyst at the U.S. Army War College, said. "Hussein may feel it's time to let someone else make the decisions. The next few months are going to be critical."

In February, Iranian forces attacked across the Shatt al Arab estuary at the top of the Persian Gulf, capturing Al Faw, an abandoned oil terminal town, and about 125 square miles of surrounding territory.

The loss marked Iran's first deep penetration of Iraqi territory since the war began in September, 1980, with an Iraqi invasion of Iran. While Al Faw's loss was not considered strategic, that development was a major blow to Iraqi morale, particularly after repeated official predictions that the town would be retaken within days.

Most analysts believe that the town will be permanently lost unless Iraq moves to recapture it by September, when seasonal rains and flooding will make the terrain unpassable.

Iraq's second major setback took place last month when Iraqi forces were driven out of the Iranian town of Mehran, about 100 miles east of Baghdad. The Iraqis had seized Mehran on May 17 as a bargaining chip to trade for Al Faw and as a demonstration of Iraq's determination to bring the war home to Iran again.

Equally significant, according to analysts interviewed by telephone in Washington, London and Baghdad, are indications of continued fighting around the Majnoon Islands in the southern Hawizah marshes.

Iraq claimed earlier this year that it had recaptured the islands, which contain major oil installations. The renewed fighting suggests the Iraqis have still not secured the area, which could be used as a jumping-off point for a new Iranian offensive against the strategic highway running from Baghdad to Basra, Iraq's second largest city.

The analysts agreed that Iraq's major problem is a lack of morale and willpower in the face of determined resistance by the Iranians, rather than a shortage of arms. The Iraqis, who are supplied by France and the Soviet Union, enjoy a sizable advantage over Iran in all types of sophisticated weapons.

"When push comes to shove, it's the guy behind the pike that counts," one analyst said. "Obviously, the Iraqis are not showing much willingness to fight."

For several years, the Iraqis have pursued a policy aimed at limiting their casualties above all else, which in the view of most analysts has prevented them from pressing home their advantages.

"Reports from Baghdad speak of near despair in the capital," said one analyst. "There is a dark mood in the country and increasing frustration at the length of the war. The feeling seems to be that Saddam Hussein is leading the country into a mess."

Adding to the morale problems is Iraq's slumping domestic economy and the fact that the government is essentially a minority regime. The Iraqi government is led by secular nationalists, but the leaders are also mostly Sunni Muslims in a country where the majority of the population is Shia Muslim, the predominant religion in non-Arab Iran, which is led by the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

While there have been reports of discontent in Iran as well, the masses of Iranian troops are highly motivated, if poorly equipped and trained, and believe themselves to be fighting a righteous religious war against the Iraqi regime.

While it might seem ludicrous to a Western army, many Iranian recruits have been seen going into battle clutching tiny plastic keys that their religious leaders have promised will guarantee them entrance to paradise when they are martyred on the battlefield.

The analysts' pessimistic views about Iraq contrast sharply with the optimism that many experts expressed about the Iraqi position a year ago, when the Iraqi army had turned back a major Iranian offensive with enormous casualties among the Iranian troops.

One factor that was not foreseen was the recent drop in oil prices, which has made Iraq and its supporters among the Arab oil states short of cash.

"The Iraqis haven't really covered themselves in glory, and the (Persian) gulf states must be wondering if they can hack it," said one expert.

Iraq has been supported, financially and politically, by the Sunni Muslim regimes in the gulf states that have expressed concern that a defeat for Iraq would result in a Shia fundamentalist tide sweeping through the region and threatening their hold on power.

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