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Israeli raid could spark Iraqi-Syrian alliance

Could Israel's recent strike against Iraqi nuclear facilities force the Iraqis to consider making up with Syria? Doing so would make for a significant shift in the Mideastern balance of power -- as did previous prospects of a reconciliation between the two rival Baathist regimes, in late 1978.

Arab sources are positing that a renewed attempt to bury the inter-Baathist hatchet might be one way for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to deal with the humiliation of the June 7 air strike. It would make sense for the two main targets of recent Israeli action to work out a joint counterstrategy.

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That Hussein may be ready to do so is indicated by reports from Arab sources that he launched an (as yet unrequired) peace overture to the Syrians last month.

The approach was made at a purely technical level in the first instance, the sources say. The Iraqis proposed increasing the flow of Iraqi oil through Syrian pipelines to the Mediterranean, from 100,000 to 500,000 barrels per day, with about 25 cents paid to the Syrians from every barrel pumped.

This was not simply an attempt to increase Iraqi oil exports, which have been limited by the closure of Iraq's own oil terminals at the head of the Gulf because of the Gulf war.

Instead, its purpose became clear to the Syrians when it was followed in short order by an Iraqi proposal to undertake a whole program of political reconcialition.

The go-between chosen by the Iraqis was Arab League Secretary-General Chedli Klibi. The Iraqis were said to be proposing restoration of full normal relations between the two governments: "everything short of total unity."

But the Syrians turned the Iraqis down. Not even the oil deal went through, the sources say.

Right after the Israeli raid, the Iraqis seemed to be looking for help more toward the conservative Saudis than to their fellow Baathists in Syria. The Saudi monarch was undoubtedly well placed to advocate their cause in his discussions with government leaders in Europe, and his general pro-Western orientation is something the Iraqis have increasingly come to share over the past years.

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But in the Arab world today, the Syrians appear more confident in their alliance with the Soviets than do the Saudis in their ties with the US. The value of the Saudis' pro-Western stance was undermined by the success of the Israeli raid.

There appears, therefore, a strong chance the Iraqis might turn again, as they did in October 1978, toward an alliance with the Syrians. But this time they will want something more lasting than that overture's eight -month honeymoon.

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