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Muslim holiday fails to quell Gulf fighting

The sound of gunfire and explosives echoes in the neighborhoods of beirut this week. But one can also hear laughter. Throughout many countries of the Muslim world, the noise of weapons being discharged into the air is part of the raucous celebration of Id al-Adha, the annual four-day feast that commemorates the day an angel stayed Abraham's hand as he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Among most Muslims, bloodshed is forbidden on this holiday. This is a time when families gather to pray in the mosque and give alms or food to the poor.

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But at the nothern end of the fulf, at the geographical heart of far-flung Islam, this religious anniversary has not been reason enough for Muslim to stop firing at Muslim.

Warring neighbors Iraq and Iran are proving so committed to continued fighting that the leaders of both nations have used Id al-Adha as an occasion to urge on their soldiers against each other. The Gulf war has entered its fifth week with heavy ground fighting, continued air raids, and little bending by the foes.

But there is cause for hope. Almost every muslim nation in the vicinity is supporting acceptance of a cease-fire. The fear among many that the war might spread is ebbing. The Gulf's oil lanes remain open.

Three major avenues for peace are being pursued, so far without much progress , but most Islamic nations favor one or another of these efforts:

* United Nations. UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim is attempting to arrange a cease-fire in position. This so far has been repected by Iran because , according to Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai, it would serve to reward Iraqi aggression. But iranian reticence about using the good offices of the UN has decreased in recent days.

* Islamic Conference. Secretary-General Habib Chatti of Tunisia is attempting to open talks between the two Muslim nations. He met with Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr this week. The Islamic Conference presumably carries more weight with fundamentalist Khomeini than does the UN.

* Palestinian Liberation Organization. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who visited both sides at the outset of the war, is organizing a meeting of nonaligned nations on the Gulf war. The PLO has called for an Iraqi pullback as part of a cease-fire. This is rejected by Iraq. Mr. Arafat is said to be concerned that the war is diverting attention and resources away from the Palestinian cause.

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Even though heavy fighting persists, time itself may work in a favor of peace. The Muslim world has a tradition of eventually tiring of violence and negotiating a hudna, a fixed-period armistice providing a rest for both sides.

"Four weeks is a very long war by modern standards, especially in the Middle East," observes one Western diplomat stationed in Beirut. "There's a time element in all this that might help achieve a cessation of hostilities."

For the moment, the dangerous drift toward involving other Arab nations in the fighting seems to have stopped. Both pro-Iraqi Jordan and pro-Iranian Syria in recent days have quickly and firmly denied charges they have sent soldiers to fight in the war. This contrasts sharply with bellicose rhetoric by these nations only one week earlier.

Both Iran and Iraq, moreover, seem to have their hands full on the battlefield without moving to open other fronts or draw in the big powers. In fact, in what may signal a conciliatory gesture toward the United States, Iran's Prime Minister Rajai now says that his country's parliament is ready to decide the fate of the 52 US Hostages.

On the ground, meanwhile, Iraq is continuing its steady siege of the oil-refining cities of Abadan and Khorrmashahr. Barring an as yet undetected Iranian counteroffensive, Iraq may overrun one of both cities this week, thus achieving its short-term objectives.

But the human and materiel costs have proved so high in the first month of fighting that an Iraq drive much deeper into the Persian homeland seem unlikely.

For its part, Iran does not seem about to negotiate, even though it has shown itself unable to regain lost territory. Mr. Rajai's government apparently needs some semblance of a face-saving win before considering an end or even a temporary halt to the war.

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