The endless wet mud flats of Iraq's Fao Peninsula are marked
with crumbling trenches and battlefield berms, and point to one
bleak fact of Iraq's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s: to
fight this war was an agony.
Its severity is still very evident today, as Iraq and Iran
take their first cautious steps toward rapprochement. Iraqis and
diplomats say that there are mutual tactical reasons now for dtente
between the two giants of the Persian Gulf. At the moment, some
6,000 Iraqi prisoners of war are being released by Iran, most after
more than a decade in captivity.
But with more than 1 million from both sides killed in the
war, the list of differences is long and likely to prevent any
strategic alliance. Iraq and Iran have been rivals for centuries,
since Iraq served as the eastern anchor of the Ottoman Empire,
Across this former battlefront, along the contested Shatt
al-Arab waterway, the desolation speaks of total war: Entire
forests of date palms have been burned or had their branches
severed by the sheer volume of artillery fire.
Mile after mile, the trunks remain eerily standing, like a
bed of nails that stretch as far as the eye can see.
One can almost hear the suction of tanks and armored vehicles
stuck in the mud. The wet cold winters and sticky suffocating
summers rich with insect life compounded the misery of those who
fought in the trenches, World War I-style.
This wasteland today resembles postwar Verdun more than any
modern battlefield, and along one stretch of road a small,
makeshift memorial is fitting: Propped upon a rusting tank shell is
a still-muddied helmet.
Effect of US presence
Though the eventual cease-fire of 1988 meant that no side had
gained, Iraq and Iran are only now quietly working to improve
relations. Iraq has been isolated since President Saddam Hussein's
forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, and were expelled by American-led
forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
And Iran has for months sought to improve ties with all its
neighbors, who have long been suspicious of the spread of Iran's
Added to the equation are US forces in the Gulf, which now
number some 35,000 troops. Their presence disturbs both Iraq and
Iran for different reasons, though they are there to "protect"
oil-producing US allies such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and
Qatar, and to enforce the American policy of "dual containment"
against Iraq and Iran.
The new Iraq-Iran moves reflect a changing situation in the
Middle East, however, that has brought Israel and Turkey into close
military alliance, with America's blessing.
"The best policy for Iraq in the future would be dtente
between Iraq, Iran, and Syria, to confront the new alliances," says
Saad Naji Jawad, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad.
But, notes one diplomat, "here we have three partners with
very different interests."
The American policy of containment has "helped push" Iraq and
Iran together, Professor Jawad says, and the large US military
presence in the Gulf means that "Iran feels threatened, too,
because they know they are the second target."
Iraq has initiated several "let's make up" initiatives, but
each time for political reasons. Shortly after its invasion of
Kuwait, for example, it released thousands of Iranian prisoners of
war from the Iran-Iraq war - all except one pilot, who was shot
down over Iraq on the eve of hostilities and who Iraq held as
evidence that it did not start the war - to enlist Iranian support.
Then on the eve of the Gulf War, more than 100 Iraqi jet fighters
flew to Tehran in a risky Iraqi gamble to preserve them from the
allied air campaign.
Iran has never returned the planes, and the Islamic Republic
still demands billions of dollars in compensation for damage done
during the Iraq-Iran war, which began with an Iraqi invasion of
Iranian territory and devolved into mutual destruction of oil
facilities, indiscriminate air and missile attacks on main cities,
and widespread use of chemical weapons, at first by Iraq. …