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US speaks softly on Iran-Iraq conflict, with hostages in mind

Iran's readiness to see the sinister hand of the United States behind Iraqi attacks on its territory is a major reason why Washington is maintaining scrupulous neutrality in the fighting between the two countries.

Of immediate concern for US policymakers is the status of the 52 hostages still held in Tehran, itself a target for Iraqi Air Force raids, and the disposition of Iranian leaders toward grappling with the issue of their release.

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There had been indications of late that Iran's revolutionary government was preparing to deal with the hostage crisis. The Iranian Parliament was preparing to debate the issue when fighting broke out between Iran and Iraq over the key Shatt Al-Arab waterway last week.

But Tehran radio reported Sept. 23 that Parliament had "decided to freeze the issue of the hostages at the present time," presumably because the widening war with Iraq was demanding the nation's undivided attention. The radio announcement also appeared to be a response to Iraq's assertion that Iran had released the hostages unconditionally.

Earlier this week, President Carter suggested that the fighting between the two countries might persuade Iranian leaders that they needed friends and therefore induce them to release the hostages.

Although there had been encouraging signs that Tehran wanted to resolve the hostage deadlock, the speaker of Iran's Parliament made it clear Monday that members would not decide the fate of the captives until the US met certain demands, including the return of the late Shah's property and the release of Iranian assets frozen in the US.

The speaker also declared that the hostage issue was likely to be affected by the fighting with Iraq, as "Iraq's position is close to that of the United States."

Washington is hoping that Iran and Iraq can resolve their diffrences peacefully and President Carter has said that the US stands ready to assist in any way it can in helping to achieve a peaceful resolution of the hostilities. On Monday he requested the Soviet Union not to interfere in the fighting.

Military observers here doubt that Iran could resist Iraq for any sustained length of time because the country's once-formidable armed forces have been substantially weakened by desertion, indiscipline, lack of spare parts, and the execution following the revolution of many military leaders.

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But defense analysts also doubt that Iraq has the ability to knock-out Iran although, they contend, it might achieve substantial limited gains. Reports that Iraqi forces have encircled the oil refinery at Abadan and the port of Khurramshahr -- albeit emanating fromthe official Iraqi news agency -- are giving us officials cause for considerable concern.

Should Iraqi forces strike further into Iran, humbling Iranian forces in the process, ethnic groups such as the Kurds and Baluchis might be tempted to take advantage of the resulting chaos to break with the central government and assert their long-cherished independence. Faced with turmoil on its southern border, the Soviet Union might then feel obliged to intervene in Iran, US officials say.

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