Syria bitterly criticized Iraq's President Saddam Hussein and his war on Iran yesterday, shattering the facade of Arab unity and underlining fears that other Middle East countries could be drawn into the 16-day-old Persian Gulf conflict.
The Syrian propaganda attack, in the official newspaper of President Hafez Assad's ruling Arab Baath Socialist party, marked the first open Arab criticism of Iraq. It followed claims by Baghdad that Syrian and Libyan troops were fighting alongside Iranian forces and included indirect complaints about the strong support offered Iraq by King Hussein of Jordan. c
Reports of large troop movements by Syria and Jordan toward Iraq were denied, and U.S. diplomats expressed doubt that either was preparing to intervene. But the neighboring nations increasingly were taking opposing sides, and Iraq was reported to be pressuring its Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, for more vigorous support against Iran.
U.S. sources said the only recent Syrian redeployment was that of a battalion moved east from Aleppo for internal security reasons. Washington Post correspondent William Claiborne, Who drove from Amman to Baghdad, reported no Jordanian troops on the main road. Hundreds of trucks were backed up, however, at the first Iraqi checking station at Rutbah with civilian cargos apparently headed for Baghdad, Claiborne said.
King Hussein has taken the lead in rallying Arabs behind Iraq and mobilized his country's civilian trucks Monday to be ready to carry supplies to Iraq from the Jordanian port of Aqaba at the head of the Red Sea. Although the Syrian criticism yesterday carefully refrained from backing Iran specifically, Assad has been sympathetic to Tehran's Islamic leadership and traditionally hostile to Iraq.
The government-run Syrian newspaper, Al Baath, described Saddam Hussein as a "pervert" and "an agent of imperialism and reaction who wants to play the role of the shah" as predominant power in the Persian Gulf.
"The purpose of the war is very clear," Al Baath said. "It is to divert attention from the main struggle with Israel and give the United States and Zionist forces the alibi to interfere in the Gulf region with the blessing of Arab reactionary regimes."
The Syrian criticism reflected the longstanding dispute between the rival wings of the Baath party ruling in Damascus and Baghdad. But it also stemmed from Syria's growing isolation within the Arab world, which would be increased considerably should Iraq emerge victorious from the conflict with Iraq. The Al Baath editorial, which was considered to be a studied reflection of official Syrian views, alluded to these fears, pointing out that Iran and Iraq together, along with a united Arab world, could have made up a force capable of confronting Israel.
In addition, Syria was thought to be following closely reports that the Soviet Union is preparing to resupply Iraq with military equipment, perhaps through transfers of weapons from South Yemen or Ethiopia. Both nations have close military ties to the Soviets and are conveniently located on the Red Sea for transport to Aqaba and overland into Iraq.
Two Soviet ships believed to be carrying military equipment were said to be in the Gulf of Aden, possibly on the way to Aqaba for unloading on the way to Iraq. U.S. sources said the ships were headed for an Iraqi port in the Persian Gulf before the Iran-Iraq war broke out and turned away around the Arabian Penninsula to avoid the hostilities.
Israeli intelligence sources reported that three ships unloading in Aqaba already were discharging military supplies according to observations made from the neighboring Israeli port of Elat. These reports could not be confirmed, however, and U.S. sources said a number of ships were unloading a variety of cargoes in Aqaba for transit to Iraq.
Assad was scheduled to leave today for Moscow, his main arms supplier as well as that of Iraq. Diplomatic reports in Paris say he will sign a security treaty with the Kremlin. Although Syrian officials placed the visit in a context of Assad's longtime goal of achieving military balance with Israel, the visit also fit into a delicate Soviet attempt to maintain equilibrium between its support of Iraq and Syria -- both key Arab allies but mutually hostile.
U.S. officials in Washington, meanwhile, confirmed reports originating with Arab sources in Beirut that Iraq has pulled some of its mountain units out of Iraq Kurdistan to deploy them closer to Baghdad in case of an Iranian ground attack from that direction.
Kurdish guerrillas have as a result been able to reoccupy some of the isolated outposts that the Iraqis took over at the end of the 1974-75 war against the late Gen. Mullah Mustafa Barzani's Pesh Merga guerrilla forces, the sources said, including Barzani's old headquarters at Haj Omran and Rawanduz.
Iranian jets strafed and bombed Iraqi positions in Kurdistan before the Kurdish irregulars moved back in, an Arab source reported, suggesting that the guerrillas are working in cooperation with Iran. In this connection, he added, Tehran radio is claiming that Pesh Merga guerrillas are fighting Iraqi troops and are led by Massoud Barzani, son of the legendary Kurdish chieftain who died in the United States nearly two years ago.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry summoned the Iraqi charge d'affaires in Damascus to protest the Iraqi claim that Syrian and Libyan troops are fighting with Iran and a spokesman denied that Syrian troops had deployed toward Iraq to mark support for Iran.
"this lie is part of a propaganda campaign designed to provoke Arabs against Arabs," the spokesman said, according to wire service dispatches.