TWO VIEWS of the war between Iran and Iraq are in contention. According to one, it is a war of attrition that, after a further period of mutual bloodletting, will fade into an indefinite crackle. According to the second, it could yet become a wider regional war, inflicting escalating damages, not least in the oil department. There is enough ambiguity on the battlefield, with Iraq still unable to muster the knockout it promised, that most other nations hav slipped into policies warily open to both possibilities. Some but not much urgency is felt to find a way to dampen down the hostilities: fatigue is regarded as a surer method than diplomacy. An outcome in which the arrogance and reach of both combatants had been reduced semms to be the hope of most other states of the region, and of others further afield.

But this is a shortsighted view. The pattern of intelligence failures in this war -- Iraq turns out not to be the "Prussia" and Iran not the pushover -- underscores the risk of counting on the fire to burn itself out at a safe distance. At the moment, it looks as though Ayatollah Khomeini may survive the war in better political (and physical) shape than Iraq's strongman, Saddam Hussein. There is an irony there, but not necessarily a comfort. While the war lasts, it creates certain tactical openings: Jordan's King Hussein, for instance, has used the occasion to flaunt his Islamicism, by supporting Iran; the Soviet Union to confirm its position in Syria, by completing a new friendship treaty; the United States to strengthen its hand in Saudi Arabia, by assisting in air defense.But these are maneuvers. The main consideration is that, as long as the war goes on, it can spread in ways not foreseen by anyone.

It is not so much regrettable as pathetic that so few voices have been raised for peace. The Arab-communist bloc has kept the United Nations out of the act so as not to embarrass Iraq, transparently the aggressor. Fear of pushing Iraq further toward Moscow and concern for the hostages in Iran have rendered the United States "neutral"; the proof is that spokesmen or apologists for each side acuse Washington of favoring the other. Meanwhile, no one seems to have considered focusing attention on the issue ostensibly and actually the cause of the war: the Shatt-al-Arab waterway dispute. Its merits, which seem eminently suited to a (difficult, bitter) negotiation, are weighed in an article today on the opposite page.