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Iraqis insulated from economic, but not human, costs in Gulf war

The most chilling reminders of Iraq's five-year-old war with Iran are the somber black flags dotting the rooftops of homes in almost every neighborhood of this capital. Each flag commemorates a father, son, or brother, who has died in battle. Western analysts estimate that as many as 300,000 Iraqis may have died in this war. There is no confirmation of that figure from the Iraqis, who consider even weather reports top secret information. What officials do not deny, however, is that in this nation of 14 million, the war has left few families untouched.

The ruling Baathist regime has effectively insulated a large part of the population from the economic cost of the war -- by using up Iraq's prewar foreign currency reserves to finance large-scale development projects during the first three years of fighting.

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But there is no insulation from the staggering number of casualties.

Iraqi officials agree that their nation, with a population one-third that of Iran, can't afford a continued war of attrition. They say that Iraq's 40 air strikes since mid-August against Iran's Kharg Island oil terminals, renewed strikes on oil tankers in the Gulf, and bombing raids on Iranian industrial plants, are all evidence of Iraq's determination to increase military pressure on Iran.

``He [Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] wants to dominate the world,'' says Naim Haddad, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council. The council functions as executive and legislative authority in Iraq.

Iraq, Mr. Haddad says, had held back in its military effort to see if Iran would respond to numerous third-party efforts to start negotiations. Now, however,``we will continue hitting them and to destroy their economy and their military machine until their minds will be awakened,'' Haddad says.``Khomeini is a political man, not a religious man. When he finds he cannot achieve his aim, when he finds the bullets return to him, he will change his mind. Increasingly, the destruction will change his mind.''

But Western analysts say that Iraq has threatened before that it was going to step up its attacks, then has failed to follow through.

``No military analyst can understand Iraq's strategy,'' says one Western diplomat. ``Either the military is incompetent, or the decisions are being made for political reasons.''

Western analysts worry, the diplomat says, about the tenacity of the Iranians in their pursuit of the war on the ground. ``There's too much complacency about this war. The Iranians haven't quit. Every time, after another Iranian assault, when the dust has settled you find them [the Iranians] controlling a little more territory [in Iraq],'' said the diplomat.

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The Iranians now control an estimated 2,500 square miles of Iraqi territory in the southern marshes and northern mountains. This week, Iraqi military sources accused Iran of preparing another massive ground assault because the Iranians have resumed shelling Iraqi cities.

The Iraqi response is to fight what Western military analysts as describe as a ``very conservative, defensive war'' and to continue appealing to the Arabs, the West, and the Soviet Union to push Iran toward a negotiating table.

``All the Iraqis can hope for [now] is to defend their territory, their regime, and their system,'' one diplomat says. ``It is no longer a question of winning, it's a question of not losing.''

For the ruling Baath Party and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Iranian threat is twofold: it challenges the territorial sovereignty of Iraq and the very existence of the Baath, which as a radical, pan-Arabist secular regime is antithetical to Khomeini's brand of Muslim fundamentalism.

Khomeini's demands as preconditions for peace have remained constant -- that Iraq must admit it started the war, that it must pay billions in reparations and that President Hussein must be overthrown.

The Iraqis insist that by focusing on Hussein, Khomeini actually has strengthened the President and helped the party to foster a sense of nationhood in a country that traditionally has been torn by ethnic and religious divisions.

``The effects of the war have been positive and negative,'' said Sad'un Hammadi, another member of the Revolutionary Command Council and former Iraqi Foreign Minister. ``We have lost human life and resources. But the country also has been vitalized, the people have been united. Our patriotic and nationalist feelings have been intensified.''

The regime continues to create symbols of nationalism -- ranging from the building of several war monuments and museums to the constant public statements by Iraqi officials that Iraq, an Arab nation, has for centuries suffered from the non-Arab, Persian ``aggresion'' of its eastern neighbor.

About 12 miles south of Baghdad lies a three-story modernistic brick building that houses a gigantic mural depicting the first Qadisiyah battle. It is a regular stopping place for busloads of Iraqi schoolchildren and officials guiding visiting diplomats.

The first Qadisiyah battle took place in Iraq during the seventh century. It marked the Arab defeat of the Persian Sassanid empire and the establishment of Baghdad as the seat of Islam for the next 500 years. The war with Iran now is frequently referred to by Iraqis as the``second Qadisiyah,'' or ``Saddam''s Qadisiyah.''

The symbols and the appeal to Iraqi nationalism have been bolstered by the government's pragmatic payments to the families of slain soldiers. Each family receives cash, a new car, and an apartment.

Despite the rhetoric of the regime that the war has its positive points, Iraqi officials interviewed last week universally insisted that they will not tolerate the stalemate much longer. ``We will not let the war drag on,'' insisted Dr. Hammadi.``On the ground, there is stalemate, yes. But in the air and on the sea it is active.''

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