Iraq seems to be losing its gamble for quick, convincing victory on the windswept sands of Iran, an embarrassment that could spur an ambitious Iraqi dictatorship to raise the stakes in the war.
This, at least, is the growing fear among diplomats despite the Iraqis' Oct. 1 offer of a four-day cease-fire to begin Oct. 5.
Iran's apparent reply came Oct. 2 in the form of an announcement its forces were counterattacking near the besieged city of Khorramshahr in a bid to "slaughter" the stalled invasion troops.
Indeed for the messianic mullahs of Tehran, who feel they're winning the war at the edge of the world's main oil-shipping lanes and certainly aren't yet losing, the Iraqis must seem to be saying: "OK. Because we're feeling generous, we've decided to allow you to surrender."
Ayatollah Khomeni was seen as virtually sure to reject the three latest major conditions Iraq tagged on to its avowedly "unilateral" cease-fire offer -- that the Iranians promptly hold their own fire, halt "aggressive statements," and announce they are ready to talk.
Some Arab diplomats, a lot less supportive of the Iraqi war than most Western reports have suggested, hold out hope that if enough outsiders tell the Ayatollah he is winning, he might adopt the Islamic victor's magnanimity and make peace.
But most analysts argue that Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein, who started the war, must somehow be convinced to back down. Many fear he may do precisely the opposite, whether before or after the expected collapse of his cease-fire.
"The cease-fire offer appears to mean that Iraq is still playing for time, that it has not achieved its war aims and has not yet abandoned them," a top US diplomat remarked privately Oct. 2.
What specific goals drove Saddam, as his nominal Arabs allies call him, to hurl his troops, tanks, and artillery against Iran remains as hazy as the desert arena where much of the fighting has centered.
Saddam says he wants to retake control of the disputed Shatt al Arab waterway dividing his nation from the mostly Arabic-speaking western oil region of Iran.But he already has taken the waterway.
Many analysts are beginning to suspect he may also want to hold a chunk of western Iran, or to press an on-again-off-again claim that three Iranian-held islets near the strategic Strait of Hormuz must revert to Arab control.
Both targets could be dangerous, which presumably helps explain why the coolly pragmatic Saddam has not yet openly, unequivocally committed himself to them.
An all-out drive beyond the arid Iranian flatlands into major west Iranian towns would inevitably mean heavy Iraqi casualties. Moreover, most of Saddam's troops hail from Ayatollah Khomeini's Shiite strain of Islam. Most officers, like Saddam, are from Iraq's relatively privileged Sunnite Muslim minority.
Mideast analysts see the Iraqi leader as reluctant to test the battle loyalty of the Shiites, restive over recent months at home.
To assault the three disputed isles near the outlet of the Gulf could mean a showdown with the Iranian Navy, reputedly the military arm least weakened by Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution.
Diplomats tend to shiver at the prospect of escalation on either front.
An unshackled war for the population center of western Iran could raise the threat of a defiant widening of the conflict by the Iranians.
Any tussle for the Gulf isles is seen as threatening oil exports from Arab suppliers, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Even these Arab countries, although no friends of revolutionary Iran, are clearly less than happy with the prospect of open-ended conflict on their doorstep.
Although Iraqi officials were quick to claim Saudi Arabian support for their war effort, official Saudi media have spoken only of "concern" over the situation. US officials say the dispatch of sophisticated radar planes to Saudi Arabia was at the Saudis' own request. And Japanese oil sources were quoted Oct. 2 as saying Saudi Arabia, in an apparent bid to quell world oil market jitters, had decided to increase its daily crude production by 700,000 barrels.
Saddam Hussein, meanwhile is seen as unlikely, perhaps unable, to back down in midwar.
Whatever his specific battle aims at the start, there can be little doubt the Iraqi strong man saw a quick, decisive victory over Iran as the master stroke in his painstaking campaign to consolidate power at home and greatly expand it abroad.
That meant humbling, if not toppling, those nagging Shiite revolutionaries next door.
Saddam, presumably, would then have embodied a new Mideast superpower, heir to the once great influence of the Shah of Iran and of Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Significantly, the one glaring setback in that drive for dominance came in 1975, when as nominal No. 2 man in Iraq's Baath Socialist regime he was forced to deal away claims to the Shatt al Arab to get the Shah to sever support for Kurdish rebels inside Iraq.
It was, say Baghdad diplomats, a humiliation Saddam has never forgotten.
Since then a series of bargains, reshuffles, and executions has handed Saddam undisputed leadership in Baghdad.
Along the way he seemed to change images -- first the dapper diplomat in tailored suits, then the populist in fatigues and Arab headdress, finally the field marshal in full uniform.
There were persistent reports of Shiite unrest and some doubts whether a leader who had military title without military background could count on open-ended Army loyalty. Yet despite this, Saddam also seemed on the verge of unchallenged regional leadership when he mounted his war against Iran.
Deprived of the lightning triumph he clearly had hoped for, an Iraqi leader who still likes to boast privately of his early days as a gunslinging revolutionary is seen as reluctant to sheepishly settle for peace.