DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iraqi warplanes bombed Iranian oil sites and a "large naval target" in the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, reviving the so-called tanker war barely 24 hours after U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar ended an apparently unsuccessful peace mission to the region.
The air strikes, which Iraq said were in retaliation for Iran's rejection of a U.N. cease-fire order as well as for Iranian artillery attacks on the port city of Basra, sharply raised tension in the gulf region as another U.S.-escorted convoy of Kuwaiti tankers steamed north up the waterway toward Kuwait.
An Iraqi military communique said air raids were launched against Iran's major oil terminal on Kharg Island at the northern end of the gulf, at two inland oil fields and at a "large naval target"--Baghdad's code term for an oil tanker--off the Iranian coast. The Iraqi planes scored "devastating hits" and returned safely to base, the statement said.
The strikes shattered a weeklong lull in the war against shipping and other oil-related targets that had been in effect during Perez de Cuellar's visit to Iran and Iraq.
The U.N. secretary general had been dispatched to the area by the Security Council to discuss the implementation of its July 20 resolution calling for a cease-fire in the seven-year-old gulf war.
The Iranians refused to accept the resolution, citing its lack of provision for punishing Iraq as the aggressor. Iraq, for its part, told Perez de Cuellar that it would reject any attempt to change the wording of the resolution, which it has already accepted on the condition that Iran do likewise.
Iraq said its air strikes were "carried out in implementation of (the) right of self-defense following the Iranian regime's insistence in rejecting . . . all peace efforts."
Attacks on Basra
An Iraqi military spokesman said the raids were also in retaliation for what he called more Iranian artillery attacks on Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
While Iraq had been expected to resume its air strikes against economic targets in an effort to whittle down Iran's ability to finance the war, the swiftness of the raids surprised some analysts.
They noted that Perez de Cuellar reported Wednesday to the U.N. Security Council, which in turn was expected to begin discussing the implementation of a provision in its Resolution 598 to impose sanctions on whichever belligerent refuses to obey its cease-fire call.
The United States, anticipating the outcome of the secretary general's mission, served notice that it would press the other council members to agree to an arms embargo against Iran.
However, maintaining the Security Council's fragile resolve to take one-sided action against Iran could be more difficult if Iraq--which began the war by invading Iran in September, 1980--is now perceived as the party responsible for escalating the conflict, several diplomats in the region said.
Most likely, they said, Iraq has decided that the Security Council's efforts to end the war will be of little avail and that its most effective strategy lies in resuming its air strikes against Iranian economic targets.
However, with an ever-increasing number of U.S. and European warships now patrolling the gulf, there is a growing risk that the war could become "internationalized" by accident, the diplomats noted.
Indeed, a number of diplomats in the region believe that the crux of Iraq's strategy now is to draw the United States into the war on its own side by provoking an Iranian attack on either a Kuwaiti tanker flying the U.S. flag or one of the U.S. escort warships--thereby triggering American retaliation against Iran.
So far, however, Iran has been careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the U.S. naval forces that have been escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the gulf since July.
The Iraqi high command gave no information on its latest marine target, assumed to be a civilian tanker taking on cargo for Iran, other than to say that it was hit by Iraqi warplanes off the northern coast of Iran shortly after the raid on Kharg Island.
However, shipping sources said that Iraq, due to an Iranian ploy, has had less success in the shipping war recently than its communiques indicate.
The sources said the Iranians recently have been providing their shipping with decoys consisting of large barges piled high with scrap metal. The barges, pulled by tugboats, deceive Iraqi radar and cause Iraqi pilots, who rarely get within visual range of their targets, to fire their Exocet missiles at them, the sources said.