U.S. scrambles to solve mystery of planes in Iran PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

January 29, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

WSHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Iraq and Iran have added a new twist to the labyrinthine politics of the Middle East with the flight of scores of top-line Iraqi aircraft to officially neutral Iran.

What are these two bitter enemies up to?

U.S. analysts say they are "dumbstruck" by this latest surprise, and a frantic effort is under way in official circles to unravel the mystery.

Has a desperate or cagey Saddam Hussein sent his best fighters to an Iranian haven, intending to use them against the United States or Israel in a later battle? Has a significant faction of the Iraqi air force abandoned the regime, choosing safety over loyalty? Or has Iran struck a deal with its erstwhile foe, agreeing to shelter the aircraft for the duration?

A high-level Iraqi delegation was in Tehran just before the war began and U.S. officials have not yet deciphered what was discussed or what was agreed to. The delegation included Iraq's minister of transportation and the second-ranking official on the ruling Revolutionary Command Council. Baghdad made several concessions to settle its war with Iran shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2.

The movement of Iraqi civilian airliners to two commercial airports in Iran began two days before the war broke out, U.S. officials said.

The flights halted briefly, then the trickle of civilian and transport aircraft became a flood of military jet fighters from a number of Iraqi airfields over the past three or four days, officials said.

U.S. analysts say that whatever the reason behind the fugitive aircraft, Iran can only gain, assuming it maintains its neutrality: It can use the aircraft as leverage to wrest concessions from Iraq when the war ends, and it can win the allies' gratitude -- and perhaps credits and more normal relations -- if it maintains its promised neutrality.

"I'm dumbstruck by the whole thing and so is as everyone else I've talked to," said one senior military planner. "I can't imagine the Iranians giving those planes back.

"The scale makes defections seem very unlikely . . . we're dealing with 10 percent of the air force. At that level, one suspects collusion," the officer said.

Whatever the explanation, analysts said that Iran has little to lose by allowing Iraqi civilian and military planes to sit out the war at its airports.

If Iran keeps its promise to ground the planes, the move helps avoid a spillover of the war into Iran, which would be most likely to occur through the air. It also substantially weakens Saddam's regime, which Iran fought long and hard for eight years.

Although the administration has no firm evidence of a secret pact between Iraq and Iran, the circumstantial case for some arrangement is persuasive to a number of experts in and out of government.

Perhaps, however, the fugitive aircraft are evidence of an Iraqi military ploy, designed to shelter the planes from allied bombardment at neutral airfields until they can be brought back as a surprise weapon.

Others, in what some officers said was a theory gaining increasing acceptance, have argued that Iraq may be reserving its warplanes in order soon to launch a second phase of the war in which it would use the aircraft to bombard American troop columns and supply trains as they maneuvered inside Saudi Arabia.

If neutral Iran can be drawn somehow to Saddam's side of the war in the future, one senior U.S. Air Force officer in Riyadh said yesterday, Saddam could recover his idled air assets and come out ahead.

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