Iraq, until recently a xenophobic loner in inter-Arab affairs, now is backing up its bid to emerge as leader of "the Arab nation." The hard-nosed pragmatists of the Baath Socialist Party who now rule in what was once Mesopotamia are hoping to take advantage of the upheavals -- iran and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty -- that have wracked the Mideast over the past 30 months.
They hope that the regional jigsaw puzzle eventually will fit together in a way that will clearly show their own imprint.
The Iraqi bid for Arab leadership was formally launched when Baghdad hosted the anti-Sadat Arab summit in November 1978. Most recent actions in the same campaign include:
* Attempting a spectacular reentry into the Israeli-Palestinian arena, by having "their men" -- members of the pro-Iraqi Arab Liberation Front (ALF) -- attack Kibbutz Misgavam in northern Israel April 7.
* Stepping up the campaign against the Islamic regime in Iran, notably by laying official claim to three key islands in the Gulf occipied by the Shah's forces in 1970.
The Misgavam operation, in which three Israelis and the five ALF guerrillas were killed, was critized by some Palestinians. Members of the pro-Soviet Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), WHOSE OFFICES IN Baghdad were recently closed down by the Iraqis, said privately that it drew attention to weaknesses in Israeli border security that were commonly used by members of all guerrilla groups infiltrating into Israel.
They added that the operation, by raising tensions in southern Lebanon, could make problems for Iraq's Baathist rivals in Syria, who maintain peace-keeping forces a few miles north of Misgavam, in sourtheast Lebanon.
Palestinian leftists also felt the operation was designed to raise Iraq's stock with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, who currently is trying to mediate in the widening rift between Iraq and Iran.
Mr. Arafat is a close ally of Iran's revolutionary Islamic leadership, many of whom trained as exiles in PLO training camps and have adopted the Palestinian cause as their own.
But relations between the PLO chairman and the Iraqi Baathists have also improved radically since their followers tangled in a brief "war of spooks" (spies) that encompassed three continents early in 1978.
Mr. Arafat has emerged as an adroit mediator in several regional disputes over recent years. But even his almost Kissingerian agility will be taxed to the utmost by the swelling disagreement over the three Gulf islands of Abu Musa, and greater and Lesser Tunb.
On paper, Iraq does not even have any claim over the islands, which overlook key Gulf oil-tanker routes. Before the Shah's forces seized them, their sovereignty was vested in two different members of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
But Iraq is claiming them back "for the Arab nation," and its claims to do so have not yet been publicly questioned by the UAE.
Militarily, it would take something like Iraq's burgeoning Navy to challenge what remains of Iran's 30,000-strong naval forces for possession of the islands -- rather than the UAE's small, 900-man Navy.
The Iranian revolutionaries, meanwhile, seem to have dug in their heels over the whole issue. Whereas previously they said they would hand over the islands to any Arab regime not associated with "American imperialism," now they flatly state they will not give them back.
Iraq's Foreign Minister has demanded an immediate Iranian withdrawal from the islands in a letter to the United Nations Secretary-General, the official Iraqi news agency reported April 6. This could be a prelude to an attempt to seize them by force -- a previous plan to do so, last November, having been headed off by Mr. Arafat at the last minute.
The new spate of Iraqi action on this issue comes as relations with Iran plummet to a new low, following two recent unsuccessful grenade attacks against Iraqi leaders, blamed by Iraqi leaders on the Iranians. Both regimes trade accusations of agitation among the respective minorities on both sides who inhabit their common 800-mile border.
But the upsurge of Iraqi interest in the three disputed islands is also well timed for Iraq to profit from the continuing fears of the Arab Gulf states that the religion-inspired chaos of the opposite shore might spill across the waters to their shores.
If Iraq could take advantage of these fears to slip down and seize the three islands, it would emerge considerably stronger in Gulf terms, not only militarily but also politically.
The political muscle Iraq is building up in the Gulf -- through its recent security agreement with the Saudis as well as through other means -- is balanced by recent setbacks in the arena of the radical arab states.
Relations with neighboring Syria remain strained, and Syria's allies in the hard-line Arab "steadfastness front," Algeria and Libya, openly snubbed Iraq by refusing to participate in a much-vaunted "Arab popular conference" in Baghdad in early April.
Arab sources here say Algerian President Chadli Benjedid even turned down an invitation from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to cochair the conference.
With attempts to influence the steadfastness front states apparently failing, the Iraqis for the moment may not achieve their bid to emerge as the key balancing force between Arab hard-liners and the conservative states of the Gulf. But they already have come a long way from their splendid, self-imposed isolation of the mid-1970s.