Flashing across Iraqi television screens every night as an introduction to the 8 p.m. news is a picture of the Arab world with a web of pulsating lines spreading out from Baghdad across the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, encompassing even part of Egypt.
In this none-too-subtle way the government of President Saddam Hussein reminds Iraqis -- and anyone else tuned in -- of Iraq's ambitions to lead the Arab world and particularly to assert its protective influence over the gulf, site of world's most fabulous oil wealth.
Whether Saddam's aspirations to gulf, let alone Arab, leadership have been dealt a mortal blow or just a temporary setback by Iraq's prolonged war with Iran is the subject of as much discussion in the region as in the West.
Many Western military analyst have concluded that the war, with the destruction of refineries, loading facilities, pipes and pumping stations in both countries, has exposed the inability of either Iran or Iraq ever to serve as "guardian of the gulf," protecting its vital oil supplies for the West.
How much permanent damage has been done to Saddam's stature outside the region as well as in the gulf is not clear yet. Before the war, Iraq was clearly the military powerhouse on the Arab side of the gulf, its influence waxing daily also by virtue of its standing as the region's -- and the world's -- second largest oil exporter and Saddam's appointed role as the next leader of the nonaligned movement.
In February 1980, Saddam published a pan-Arab charter in a clear bid to assert Iraq's leadership and establish Baghdad -- in place of Cairo -- as the political epicenter and main protector of the Arab world against Soviet and American designs.
But the was is calling all this into question. As it drags on, with no sign of a peace in sight, Iraq is finding itself increasingly beholden to once rival conservative sheikdoms and kingdoms in the lower gulf. They are providing the money Badhdad needs to sustain its first major endeavor to assert its military might in the region over Iran, its chief rival.
To some diplomats stationed here, it seems the stalemated war may be serving unexpectedly and unintentionally to bring down both regional powers and to shift authority and influence to others.
"The two revolutions in the gulf, the Baath and Islamic, are knocking each other out, leaving the conservatives in control," remarked one Asian diplomat, referring to the competing Iraqi socialist and Iranian Islamic movements.
But others are more cautious, feeling Saddam has suffered only a temporary loss of stature that may be more than made up later, particularly if Iraq prevails in the war. "We have to wait until the war is over and we see what Iraq is able to do," said a Western diplomat.
The first test of influence among the Arab gulf states since the outbreak of the war last September has come in the form of a plan by the conservatives to set up an Arab Gulf Cooperation Council to coordinate their activities in various areas, including security and defense. The council is to be formally launched by the six kingdoms and sheikdoms of the lower gulf in late May.
Conspicuously absent from the planning for the council, as well as membership in it, is Iraq, which has adopted a stance of big-brother indifference bordering on disdain toward the plan.
"We are not against it," said Tariq Aziz, a member of Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council, in an interview recently."They told us they wanted todo this thing. We said, 'God be with you,' because we have always supported coordination between the gulf [Arab] states."
"But there is one thing," added Aziz. "Any coordination in the Arab gulf will not be strong and able to defend the area from foreign intervention without Iraq. We don't want to impose this fact on our brothers in the gulf. We don't want to behave nervously.
"We know that whenever there is a real danger in the area, everybody will look at Iraq, what Iraq is going to do. This is the reality of things," he said.
"They will come to this conclusion by themselves sooner or later and when they [do] we will be happy. We will cooperate with them like brothers."
In fact, the Iraqi view of what constitutes the "real danger" and how to coper with it and the big powers is nearly identical to that of the lower gulf sheikdoms and kingdoms.
"There is no immediate Soviet danger to the gulf area," said Aziz, echoing the comments of Saudi, Kuwaiti and other gulf leaders. "The danger to the gulf area was created by the Iranians . . . by the expansionist policies in Iran in the time of the shah and in the time of [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeni . . . . The shah planted the seeds of crisis into he area when he pretended to play the role of a policeman."
It was Iran, he said, which in the past had threatened Bahrain with its territorial claims to that island, and Iran, which in 1971 had seized three islands near the Strait of Hormuz belonging to the Arab emirates. Their return to the United Arab Emirates is one of Iraq's war demands.
Aziz said the American and Soviet policy of sending fleets to the gulf and seeking facilities and bases in and around it was highly dangerous and serving to prepare the region for "a new Yalta." He was referring to the meeting in the Soviet port city during World War II in which the Allied powers carved out their spheres of influence in Europe and decided the fate of Germany.
"They [the Americans] want to escalate the situation in the area so that one day [President] Reagan and [President Leonid] Brezhnev will meet and say, 'This is your share and this is my share.' We will be the losers."
The security of the gul, Aziz said, lies not in superpower involvement but in the stability and prosperity of its three main countries, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. "If we want really to safeguard the security in the gulf, we should take care that these three major countries are prosperous, stable and that they have good relations," he said.
Asked about the Iraqi view of the U.S. Rapid Development Force and its legitimacy as a counter-weight to growing Soviet military power in the area, Aziz indicated that it depended on its ultimate purpose. "We are not against American military preparations against the Soviet Union and we are not against Soviet military preparations against America. This is big-power business.But they shouldn't make our lands a theater for their conflict."
"If they think that this might be used in the Arab world for internal Arab reasons, this is against our interests as an Arab nation," he said.