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Iraq Fires Missiles at Iran's Holy City for the First Time

March 03, 1988|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Iraq said Wednesday that it fired two missiles into Qom, a city regarded as holy by Iran's Shia Muslims and a site not previously attacked with missiles.

Tehran Radio said that Qom, about 75 miles southwest of Tehran, had been hit by one missile. It said there were no casualties.

The broadcast said that Iranian forces, in retaliation, fired three missiles at Baghdad, Iraq's capital.

Qom is a center of religious learning and was home for decades to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's leader. The city houses the tomb of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, and is especially revered by Shias, who constitute the vast majority of Iran's population.

As long as Iraq did not include Qom among its targets, Iran agreed not to attack four Shia holy cities in Iraq--Karbala, Najaf, Samarra and Kadhimain. Iran has sought to emphasize the differences between the Shias, who are the majority in Iraq as in Iran, and the Sunni Muslims, who are the minority yet control Iraq's government.

The fact that the Iraqi government sanctioned a raid on Qom underlines the religious aspects of the conflict and appears to be aimed at intensifying the war.

The Qom attack also appears to be another step in a significant escalation in the so-called war of the cities, which has flared intermittently since 1985. Suspended for almost a year, it was resumed Saturday when Iraqi warplanes attacked Tehran.

Iran's national news agency said that Revolutionary Guards fired a ground-to-ground missile, believed to be a Soviet Scud-B, at a government center in Baghdad on Wednesday morning. The agency said Iraqi missiles fell on Tehran through the night, wounding 15 people. In another attack, five people were reported killed in a missile attack on a village near the northern city of Rasht.

Since Monday, the Iraqis and Iranians have fired 26 missiles, Iraq accounting for 21 of them.

'Tooth-Smashing Replies'

Prime Minister Hussein Moussavi told Tehran Radio that Iran will continue to respond to the Iraqi attacks on civilian centers.

"Iraq will get tooth-smashing replies, both on its missile force and on its military forces at the fronts," Moussavi said.

Khomeini appeared in a 10-minute radio broadcast apparently aimed at calming the capital, where residents were reported to be highly unsettled by the rain of missiles.

"A mistake the Westerners and our opponents make is that they think that Iranians are frightened by missiles," Khomeini said. "But they fired their missiles, killed people and what not, yet the Iranian people are sitting tight and laughing at them."

In an apparent reference to Soviet assistance to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Iranian leader said that "of course our people will not forget who helps Saddam in his mischiefs, who orders him and who gives him missiles."

Iran protested to the Soviet Union on Tuesday, charging that Moscow had furnished Baghdad with the non-nuclear missiles that are hitting Tehran. Until now, Tehran, which is about 200 miles from the Iran-Iraq frontier, was beyond Iraqi missile range.

Iraq maintains that the missiles being used in the latest offensive are manufactured in Iraq, but Western analysts believe they may simply be Soviet Scud-B missiles with boosters to extend their range.

Apparently Iraq has gone back to attacking civilian targets in the hope of persuading Iran to accept a U.N. cease-fire.

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