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Repairing the damage in Iran and Iraq. Should the UN finally gain a cease-fire in the Gulf, the work will have just begun. The most devastating conflict since World War II has cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Help will be needed from around the world to reconstruct the two nations' splintered cities and torn social fabric.

Real peace between Iran and Iraq will require a vast reconstruction effort - both physical and social - in the two Gulf nations. Providing the material resources for this healing process will be a challenge to world Muslim leaders as well as to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the new President of the United States. The economic powers in the Far East will also be key to its success.

All concerned - the superpowers, Muslim nations, and industrial countries of East and West - face one of history's great opportunities. To make peace work, they could divert resources normally expended on the arms race to help an estimated 63 million people (16 million Iraqis and 47 million Iranians) rebuild war-shattered economies and lives.

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What has to be done?

First, physical damage has to be repaired. Wasted by missiles, bombs, and shells, tens of towns and cities in Iran and Iraq - and the people who live in them - need urgent care and attention.

Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people in southern Iran and northern Iraq are refugees. They need new homes, schools, shops, farm plots. Crucial industries of both countries, especially those connected with oil and natural gas, are largely in ruins.

Armies, with their artillery and armor, have tramped and bulldozed their way across millions of acres of land once used to grow food. Chemical weapons, used extensively by Iraq, may have polluted water and soil. Roads and bridges have been bombed or shelled out of existence.

A research study from Japan's Institute of Middle Eastern Economies in Tokyo last January added up damage of another kind.

The study found that between 1981 and 1985 alone, damage to oil installations and export facilities produced oil revenue losses of $23 billion in Iran and $65.5 billion in Iraq.

Wartime military expenses totaled $24.3 billion for Iran and $33 billion for Iraq. Incalculable further losses flowed from livelihoods destroyed and labor forces decimated.

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Who will pay for reconstruction, and help coordinate it?

UN Security Council Resolution 598, endorsed by the world's six biggest powers, speaks of ``appropriate international assistance.'' After the last major war of our century, World War II, the US got out in front in a successful effort to rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan.

The Soviet Union had to make a titanic effort just to reconstruct its own wrecked cities. Joseph Stalin would not or could not spare for his East European client states any aid comparable to America's post-1945 Marshall Plan.

Today, even in the era of Mr. Gorbachev and the new 1988 dawn of East-West cooperation, neither the Soviet treasury nor the US Congress and taxpayer have the interest or cash to take the lead in rebuilding Iraq and Iran.

This looks far more like a job for the rising economic powers of the Far East - chiefly Japan and South Korea - in concert with the wealthy Arabs of the Gulf area and, of course, the Iranians themselves.

Prices on the stock market in Seoul soared upward in anticipation of new South Korean construction contracts as soon as Iran announced on July 18 that it had accepted the principle of a UN-supervised cease-fire.

Korean construction firms; Japan's steel, electronic, and petrochemical combines; and many thousands of Filipino, Korean, Taiwanese, and other Far Eastern workers, many of them skilled, are already gathering major rewards in the Persian Gulf area. Peace and reconstruction should multiply their opportunities.

Other countries with major interests on both sides, such as Italy, are likely to follow. One great difficulty for both Baghdad and Tehran, as well as for UN agencies, may lie in sorting out competing projects and investors.

After the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1956, 1967, and 1973, clearing Egypt's Suez Canal of mines, sunken ships, and other hazards for world maritime traffic was a major challenge. But international efforts, with the US again out in front, met it.

A similar but greater challenge this time lies in clearing from the Iran-Iraq border waterway, the Shatt al Arab, about 75 sunken ships and many other objects, mines, and unexploded ordnance from Iran's repeated and futile land offensives against Iraq's southern port of Basra. Much of Basra and Iran's nearby ports of Abadan and Khoramsshahr will have to be almost totally rebuilt, both as oil ports and as cities.

Once Iraq rebuilds its southern oil installations around Basra, it can reopen the old offshore, oil-export terminals that Iranian action closed early in the war. Since then, Iraq has pumped most of its oil through the pipelines it now uses across Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Iran will have to give top priority to repairing its Kharg Island oil terminal in the Gulf, blasted by repeated Iraqi air attacks. It will seek capital from Far Eastern and probably European sources to restore its oil refineries, which were also key targets of Iraq's air force.

Both countries will need to find bold and imaginative commercial bankers for loans. Japanese bankers are already on the scene. They, with Arab partners, and perhaps some Western ones, may be ready to provide credits to rebuild industries, especially those in which they have invested, such as petrochemicals.

Grandiose apartment blocks, highways, and office towers - products of the pre-war oil boom, and the pride of Baghdad - may proliferate again. Damaged and decimated Iranian cities like Ahwaz, Isfahan, and Dezful need to clear the debris of war and rebuild. So must Iraq's Basra area and its northern towns, which were busy market centers before the war.

This process of physical renaissance will depend much on an equal or greater parallel process of political and human reconciliation.

The eight-year war's political disputes - such as the location of the Shatt al Arab boundary and the debate over who owns this or that pocket of desert or northern mountains - can be thrashed out at a peace table, as they have been over thousands of years.

What remains to challenge men and women of vision in both nations is how to begin this human reconciliation.

Iraq's people live under a rather despotic but fairly efficient state socialism, with a heavy military flavor. However, the Iraqi state neither stifles the arts and learning nor represses women.

Its rulers, like President Saddam Hussein himself, are largely of the minority (about 40 percent) Sunni Muslim persuasion. The Iraqi majority, despite past persecution and pre-war expulsions, is still of the Shiite Muslim faith. Iraq's Shiites have remained loyal to the state despite the efforts of Iran's Shiite rulers to take advantage of their religious loyalties.

Iraq and its secular-minded, ruling Baath Party have been tolerant toward most sects and faiths, including a small professional and mercantile-oriented Christian minority. Most of a once large and thriving Jewish community left in the early 1950s under both internal Muslim pressures and external Israeli ones.

Iran's ruling Shiite clergy have often been intolerant of other faiths. Many Bahais, a few Jews, and a handful of Christians have been either imprisoned, executed, or hounded out of Iran.

Western visitors often hear Iraqis argue that they have been fighting to prevent such things from happening to them - their women being forced to wear the chador, or other faiths being made to hide in the dark. Don't you think this is your war, too? they ask.

The West has answered only a very hesitant and partial ``yes.'' What its leaders can now do, with other people around the world, is encourage both the Iranian and Iraqi rulers, as they rebuild their countries, to grant to human rights the same priority given up to now to military efforts in a futile war neither side could win.

Mr. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent in the Middle East, is a London-based correspondent for ABC News.

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