Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)
The Iran-Iraq War permanently altered the course of Iraqi history. It strained Iraqi political and social life, and led to severe economic dislocations. Viewed from a historical perspective, the outbreak of hostilities in 1980 was, in part, just another phase of the ancient Persian-Arab conflict that had been fueled by twentieth-century border disputes. Many observers, however, believe that Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Iran was a personal miscalculation based on ambition and a sense of vulnerability. Saddam Hussein, despite having made significant strides in forging an Iraqi nation-state, feared that Iran's new revolutionary leadership would threaten Iraq's delicate SunniShia balance and would exploit Iraq's geostrategic vulnerabilities--Iraq's minimal access to the Persian Gulf, for example. In this respect, Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Iran has historical precedent; the ancient rulers of Mesopotamia, fearing internal strife and foreign conquest, also engaged in frequent battles with the peoples of the highlands.
The Iran-Iraq War was multifaceted and included religious schisms, border disputes, and political differences. Conflicts contributing to the outbreak of hostilities ranged from centuries-old Sunni-versus-Shia and Arab-versus-Persian religious and ethnic disputes, to a personal animosity between Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. Above all, Iraq launched the war in an effort to consolidate its rising power in the Arab world and to replace Iran as the dominant Persian Gulf state. Phebe Marr, a noted analyst of Iraqi affairs, stated that "the war was more immediately the result of poor political judgement and miscalculation on the part of Saddam Hussein," and "the decision to invade, taken at a moment of Iranian weakness, was Saddam's".
Iraq claimed territories inhabited by Arabs (the Southwestern oil-producing province of Iran called Khouzestan), as well as Iraq's right over Shatt el-Arab (Arvandroud). Iraq and Iran had engaged in border clashes for many years and had revived the dormant Shatt al Arab waterway dispute in 1979. Iraq claimed the 200-kilometer channel up to the Iranian shore as its territory, while Iran insisted that the thalweg--a line running down the middle of the waterway--negotiated last in 1975, was the official border. The Iraqis, especially the Baath leadership, regarded the 1975 treaty as merely a truce, not a definitive settlement.
The Iraqis also perceived revolutionary Iran's Islamic agenda as threatening to their pan-Arabism. Khomeini, bitter over his expulsion from Iraq in 1977 after fifteen years in An Najaf, vowed to avenge Shia victims of Baathist repression. Baghdad became more confident, however, as it watched the once invincible Imperial Iranian Army disintegrate, as most of its highest ranking officers were executed. In Khuzestan (Arabistan to the Iraqis), Iraqi intelligence officers incited riots over labor disputes, and in the Kurdish region, a new rebellion caused the Khomeini government severe troubles.
As the Baathists planned their military campaign, they had every reason to be confident. Not only did the Iranians lack cohesive leadership, but the Iranian armed forces, according to Iraqi intelligence estimates, also lacked spare parts for their American-made equipment. Baghdad, on the other hand, possessed fully equipped and trained forces. Morale was running high. Against Iran's armed forces, including the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) troops, led by religious mullahs with little or no military experience, the Iraqis could muster twelve complete mechanized divisions, equipped with the latest Soviet materiel. With the Iraqi military buildup in the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein had assembled an army of 190,000 men, augmented by 2,200 tanks and 450 aircraft.
In addition, the area across the Shatt al Arab posed no major obstacles, particularly for an army equipped with Soviet river-crossing equipment. Iraqi commanders correctly assumed that crossing sites on the Khardeh and Karun rivers were lightly defended against their mechanized armor divisions; moreover, Iraqi intelligence sources reported that Iranian forces in Khuzestan, which had formerly included two divisions distributed among Ahvaz, Dezful, and Abadan, now consisted of only a number of ill-equipped battalion-sized formations. Tehran was further disadvantaged because the area was controlled by the Regional 1st Corps headquartered at Bakhtaran (formerly Kermanshah), whereas operational control was directed from the capital. In the year following the shah's overthrow, only a handful of company-sized tank units had been operative, and the rest of the armored equipment had been poorly maintained.
For Iraqi planners, the only uncertainty was the fighting ability of the Iranian air force, equipped with some of the most sophisticated American-made aircraft. Despite the execution of key air force commanders and pilots, the Iranian air force had displayed its might during local riots and demonstrations. The air force was also active in the wake of the failed United States attempt to rescue American hostages in April 1980. This show of force had impressed Iraqi decision makers to such an extent that they decided to launch a massive preemptive air strike on Iranian air bases in an effort similar to the one that Israel employed during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Iraqi Offensives, 1980-82
Despite the Iraqi government's concern, the eruption of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran did not immediately destroy the Iraqi-Iranian rapprochement that had prevailed since the 1975 Algiers Agreement. As a sign of Iraq's desire to maintain good relations with the new government in Tehran, President Bakr sent a personal message to Khomeini offering "his best wishes for the friendly Iranian people on the occasion of the establishment of the Islamic Republic." In addition, as late as the end of August 1979, Iraqi authorities extended an invitation to Mehdi Bazargan, the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to visit Iraq with the aim of improving bilateral relations. The fall of the moderate Bazargan government in late 1979, however, and the rise of Islamic militants preaching an expansionist foreign policy soured Iraqi-Iranian relations.
The principal events that touched off the rapid deterioration in relations occurred during the spring of 1980. In April the Iranian-supported Ad Dawah attempted to assassinate Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. Shortly after the failed grenade attack on Tariq Aziz, Ad Dawah was suspected of attempting to assassinate another Iraqi leader, Minister of Culture and Information Latif Nayyif Jasim. In response, the Iraqis immediately rounded up members and supporters of Ad Dawah and deported to Iran thousands of Shias of Iranian origin. In the summer of 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered the executions of presumed Ad Dawah leader Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqr as Sadr and his sister.
In September 1980, border skirmishes erupted in the central sector near Qasr-e Shirin, with an exchange of artillery fire by both sides. A few weeks later, Saddam Hussein officially abrogated the 1975 treaty between Iraq and Iran and announced that the Shatt al Arab was returning to Iraqi sovereignty. Iran rejected this action and hostilities escalated as the two sides exchanged bombing raids deep into each other's territory, beginning what was to be a protracted and extremely costly war.
Baghdad originally planned a quick victory over Tehran. Saddam expected the invasion of the in the Arabic-speaking, oil-rich area of Khuzistan to result in an Arab uprising against Khomeini's fundamentalist Islamic regime. This revolt did not materialize, however, and the Arab minority remained loyal to Tehran.
On September 22, 1980, formations of Iraqi MiG-23s and MiG21s attacked Iran's air bases at Mehrabad and Doshen-Tappen (both near Tehran), as well as Tabriz, Bakhtaran, Ahvaz, Dezful, Urmia (sometimes cited as Urumiyeh), Hamadan, Sanandaj, and Abadan. Their aim was to destroy the Iranian air force on the ground--a lesson learned from the Arab-Israeli June 1967 War. They succeeded in destroying runways and fuel and ammunition depots, but much of Iran's aircraft inventory was left intact. Iranian defenses were caught by surprise, but the Iraqi raids failed because Iranian jets were protected in specially strengthened hangars and because bombs designed to destroy runways did not totally incapacitate Iran's very large airfields. Within hours, Iranian F-4 Phantoms took off from the same bases, successfully attacked strategically important targets close to major Iraqi cities, and returned home with very few losses.
Simultaneously, six Iraqi army divisions entered Iran on three fronts in an initially successful surprise attack, where they drove as far as eight kilometers inland and occupied 1,000 square kilometers of Iranian territory.
As a diversionary move on the northern front, an Iraqi mechanized mountain infantry division overwhelmed the border garrison at Qasr-e Shirin, a border town in Bakhtaran (formerly known as Kermanshahan) Province, and occupied territory thirty kilometers eastward to the base of the Zagros Mountains. This area was strategically significant because the main Baghdad-Tehran highway traversed it.
On the central front, Iraqi forces captured Mehran, on the western plain of the Zagros Mountains in Ilam Province, and pushed eastward to the mountain base. Mehran occupied an important position on the major north-south road, close to the border on the Iranian side.
The main thrust of the attack was in the south, where five armored and mechanized divisions invaded Khuzestan on two axes, one crossing over the Shatt al Arab near Basra, which led to the siege and eventual occupation of Khorramshahr, and the second heading for Susangerd, which had Ahvaz, the major military base in Khuzestan, as its objective. Iraqi armored units easily crossed the Shatt al Arab waterway and entered the Iranian province of Khuzestan. Dehloran and several other towns were targeted and were rapidly occupied to prevent reinforcement from Bakhtaran and from Tehran. By mid-October, a full division advanced through Khuzestan headed for Khorramshahr and Abadan and the strategic oil fields nearby. Other divisions headed toward Ahvaz, the provincial capital and site of an air base. Supported by heavy artillery fire, the troops made a rapid and significant advance--almost eighty kilometers in the first few days. In the battle for Dezful in Khuzestan, where a major air base is located, the local Iranian army commander requested air support in order to avoid a defeat. President Bani Sadr, therefore, authorized the release from jail of many pilots, some of whom were suspected of still being loyal to the shah. With the increased use of the Iranian air force, the Iraqi progress was somewhat curtailed.
The last major Iraqi territorial gain took place in early November 1980. On November 3, Iraqi forces reached Abadan but were repulsed by a Pasdaran unit. Even though they surrounded Abadan on three sides and occupied a portion of the city, the Iraqis could not overcome the stiff resistance; sections of the city still under Iranian control were resupplied by boat at night. On November 10, Iraq captured Khorramshahr after a bloody house-to-house fight. The price of this victory was high for both sides, approximately 6,000 casualties for Iraq and even more for Iran.
Iraq's blitz-like assaults against scattered and demoralized Iranian forces led many observers to think that Baghdad would win the war within a matter of weeks. Indeed, Iraqi troops did capture the Shatt al Arab and did seize a forty-eight-kilometer- wide strip of Iranian territory.
Iran may have prevented a quick Iraqi victory by a rapid mobilization of volunteers and deployment of loyal Pasdaran forces to the front. Besides enlisting the Iranian pilots, the new revolutionary regime also recalled veterans of the old imperial army, although many experienced officers, most of whom had been trained in the United States, had been purged. Furthermore, the Pasdaran and Basij (what Khomeini called the "Army of Twenty Million" or People's Militia) recruited at least 100,000 volunteers. Approximately 200,000 soldiers were sent to the front by the end of November 1980. They were ideologically committed troops (some members even carried their own shrouds to the front in the expectation of martyrdom) that fought bravely despite inadequate armor support. For example, on November 7 commando units played a significant role, with the navy and air force, in an assault on Iraqi oil export terminals at Mina al Bakr and Al Faw. Iran hoped to diminish Iraq's financial resources by reducing its oil revenues. Iran also attacked the northern pipeline in the early days of the war and persuaded Syria to close the Iraqi pipeline that crossed its territory.
Iran's resistance at the outset of the Iraqi invasion was unexpectedly strong, but it was neither well organized nor equally successful on all fronts. Iraq easily advanced in the northern and central sections and crushed the Pasdaran's scattered resistance there. Iraqi troops, however, faced untiring resistance in Khuzestan. President Saddam Hussein of Iraq may have thought that the approximately 3 million Arabs of Khuzestan would join the Iraqis against Tehran. Instead, many allied with Iran's regular and irregular armed forces and fought in the battles at Dezful, Khorramshahr, and Abadan. Soon after capturing Khorramshahr, the Iraqi troops lost their initiative and began to dig in along their line of advance.
Tehran rejected a settlement offer and held the line against the militarily superior Iraqi force. It refused to accept defeat, and slowly began a series of counteroffensives in January 1981. Both the volunteers and the regular armed forces were eager to fight, the latter seeing an opportunity to regain prestige lost because of their association with the shah's regime.
Iran's first major counterattack failed, however, for political and military reasons. President Bani Sadr was engaged in a power struggle with key religious figures and eager to gain political support among the armed forces by direct involvement in military operations. Lacking military expertise, he initiated a premature attack by three regular armored regiments without the assistance of the Pasdaran units. He also failed to take into account that the ground near Susangerd, muddied by the preceding rainy season, would make resupply difficult. As a result of his tactical decision making, the Iranian forces were surrounded on three sides. In a long exchange of fire, many Iranian armored vehicles were destroyed or had to be abandoned because they were either stuck in the mud or needed minor repairs. Fortunately for Iran, however, the Iraqi forces failed to follow up with another attack.
Iran stopped Iraqi forces on the Karun River and, with limited military stocks, unveiled its "human wave" assaults, which used thousands of Basij (Popular Mobilization Army or People's Army) volunteers. After Bani Sadr was ousted as president and commander in chief, Iran gained its first major victory, when, as a result of Khomeini's initiative, the army and Pasdaran suppressed their rivalry and cooperated to force Baghdad to lift its long siege of Abadan in September 1981. Iranian forces also defeated Iraq in the Qasr-e Shirin area in December 1981 and January 1982. The Iraqi armed forces were hampered by their unwillingness to sustain a high casualty rate and therefore refused to initiate a new offensive.
Despite Iraqi success in causing major damage to exposed Iranian ammunition and fuel dumps in the early days of the war, the Iranian air force prevailed initially in the air war. One reason was that Iranian airplanes could carry two or three times more bombs or rockets than their Iraqi counterparts. Moreover, Iranian pilots demonstrated considerable expertise. For example, the Iranian air force attacked Baghdad and key Iraqi air bases as early as the first few weeks of the war, seeking to destroy supply and support systems. The attack on Iraq's oil field complex and air base at Al Walid, the base for T-22 and Il-28 bombers, was a well-coordinated assault. The targets were more than 800 kilometers from Iran's closest air base at Urumiyeh, so the F-4s had to refuel in midair for the mission. Iran's air force relied on F-4s and F-5s for assaults and a few F-14s for reconnaissance. Although Iran used its Maverick missiles effectively against ground targets, lack of airplane spare parts forced Iran to substitute helicopters for close air support. Helicopters served not only as gunships and troop carriers but also as emergency supply transports. In the mountainous area near Mehran, helicopters proved advantageous in finding and destroying targets and maneuvering against antiaircraft guns or man-portable missiles. During Operation Karbala Five and Operation Karbala Six, the Iranians reportedly engaged in large-scale helicopter-borne operations on the southern and central fronts, respectively. Chinooks and smaller Bell helicopters, such as the Bell 214A, were escorted by Sea Cobra choppers.
In confronting the Iraqi air defense, Iran soon discovered that a low-flying group of two, three, or four F-4s could hit targets almost anywhere in Iraq. Iranian pilots overcame Iraqi SA-2 and SA-3 antiaircraft missiles, using American tactics developed in Vietnam; they were less successful against Iraqi SA-6s. Iran's Western-made air defense system seemed more effective than Iraq's Soviet-made counterpart. Nevertheless, Iran experienced difficulty in operating and maintaining Hawk, Rapier, and Tigercat missiles and instead used antiaircraft guns and man-portable missiles.
Iraqi Retreats, 1982-84
The Iranian high command passed from regular military leaders to clergy in mid-1982.
In March 1982, Tehran launched its Operation Undeniable Victory, which marked a major turning point, as Iran penetrated Iraq's "impenetrable" lines, split Iraq's forces, and forced the Iraqis to retreat. Its forces broke the Iraqi line near Susangerd, separating Iraqi units in northern and southern Khuzestan. Within a week, they succeeded in destroying a large part of three Iraqi divisions. This operation, another combined effort of the army, Pasdaran, and Basij, was a turning point in the war because the strategic initiative shifted from Iraq to Iran.
In May 1982, Iranian units finally regained Khorramshahr, but with high casualties. After this victory, the Iranians maintained the pressure on the remaining Iraqi forces, and President Saddam Hussein announced that the Iraqi units would withdraw from Iranian territory. Saddam ordered a withdrawal to the international borders, believing Iran would agree to end the war. Iran did not accept this withdrawal as the end of the conflict, and continued the war into Iraq. In late June 1982, Baghdad stated its willingness to negotiate a settlement of the war and to withdraw its forces from Iran. Iran refused.
In July 1982 Iran launched Operation Ramadan on Iraqi territory, near Basra. Although Basra was within range of Iranian artillery, the clergy used "human-wave" attacks by the Pasdaran and Basij against the city's defenses, apparently waiting for a coup to topple Saddam Hussein. Tehran used Pasdaran forces and Basij volunteers in one of the biggest land battles since 1945. Ranging in age from only nine to more than fifty, these eager but relatively untrained soldiers swept over minefields and fortifications to clear safe paths for the tanks. All such assaults faced Iraqi artillery fire and received heavy casualties. The Iranians sustained an immmense number of casualties, but they enabled Iran to recover some territory before the Iraqis could repulse the bulk of the invading forces.
By the end of 1982, Iraq had been resupplied with new Soviet materiel, and the ground war entered a new phase. Iraq used newly acquired T-55 tanks and T-62 tanks, BM-21 Stalin Organ rocket launchers, and Mi-24 helicopter gunships to prepare a Soviet-type three-line defense, replete with obstacles, minefields, and fortified positions. The Combat Engineer Corps proved efficient in constructing bridges across water obstacles, in laying minefields, and in preparing new defense lines and fortifications.
Throughout 1983 both sides demonstrated their ability to absorb and to inflict severe losses. Iraq, in particular, proved adroit at constructing defensive strong points and flooding lowland areas to stymie the Iranian thrusts, hampering the advance of mechanized units. Both sides also experienced difficulties in effectively utilizing their armor. Rather than maneuver their armor, they tended to dig in tanks and use them as artillery pieces. Furthermore, both sides failed to master tank gunsights and fire controls, making themselves vulnerable to antitank weapons.
In 1983 Iran launched three major, but unsuccessful, humanwave offensives, with huge losses, along the frontier. On February 6, Tehran, using 200,000 "last reserve" Pasdaran troops, attacked along a 40-kilometer stretch near Al Amarah, about 200 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. Backed by air, armor, and artillery support, Iran's six-division thrust was strong enough to break through. In response, Baghdad used massive air attacks, with more than 200 sorties, many flown by attack helicopters. More than 6,000 Iranians were killed that day, while achieving only minute gains. In April 1983, the Mandali-Baghdad northcentral sector witnessed fierce fighting, as repeated Iranian attacks were stopped by Iraqi mechanized and infantry divisions. Casualties were very high, and by the end of 1983, an estimated 120,000 Iranians and 60,000 Iraqis had been killed. Despite these losses, in 1983 Iran held a distinct advantage in the attempt to wage and eventually to win the war of attrition.
Beginning in 1984, Baghdad's military goal changed from controlling Iranian territory to denying Tehran any major gain inside Iraq. Furthermore, Iraq tried to force Iran to the negotiating table by various means. First, President Saddam Hussein sought to increase the war's manpower and economic cost to Iran. For this purpose, Iraq purchased new weapons, mainly from the Soviet Union and France. Iraq also completed the construction of what came to be known as "killing zones" (which consisted primarily of artificially flooded areas near Basra) to stop Iranian units. In addition, according to Jane's Defence Weekly and other sources, Baghdad used chemical weapons against Iranian troop concentrations and launched attacks on many economic centers. Despite Iraqi determination to halt further Iranian progress, Iranian units in March 1984 captured parts of the Majnun Islands, whose oil fields had economic as well as strategic value.
Second, Iraq turned to diplomatic and political means. In April 1984, Saddam Hussein proposed to meet Khomeini personally in a neutral location to discuss peace negotiations. But Tehran rejected this offer and restated its refusal to negotiate with President Hussein.
Third, Iraq sought to involve the superpowers as a means of ending the war. The Iraqis believed this objective could be achieved by attacking Iranian shipping. Initially, Baghdad used borrowed French Super Etendard aircraft armed with Exocets. In 1984 Iraq returned these airplanes to France and purchased approximately thirty Mirage F-1 fighters equipped with Exocet missiles. Iraq launched a new series of attacks on shipping on February 1, 1984.
The War of Attrition, 1984-87
By 1984 it was reported that some 300,000 Iranian soldiers and 250,000 Iraqi troops had been killed, or wounded. Most foreign military analysts felt that neither Iraq nor Iran used its modern equipment efficiently. Frequently, sophisticated materiel was left unused, when a massive modern assault could have won the battle for either side. Tanks and armored vehicles were dug in and used as artillery pieces, instead of being maneuvered to lead or to support an assault. William O. Staudenmaeir, a seasoned military analyst, reported that "the land-computing sights on the Iraqi tanks [were] seldom used. This lower[ed] the accuracy of the T-62 tanks to World War II standards." In addition, both sides frequently abandoned heavy equipment in the battle zone because they lacked the skilled technical personnel needed to carry out minor repairs.
Analysts also assert that the two states' armies showed little coordination and that some units in the field have been left to fight largely on their own. In this protracted war of attrition, soldiers and officers alike failed to display initiative or professional expertise in combat. Difficult decisions, which should have had immediate attention, were referred by section commanders to the capitals for action. Except for the predictable bursts on important anniversaries, by the mid-1980s the war was stalemated.
In early 1984, Iran had begun Operation Dawn V, which was meant to split the Iraqi 3rd Army Corps and 4th Army Corps near Basra. In early 1984, an estimated 500,000 Pasdaran and Basij forces, using shallow boats or on foot, moved to within a few kilometers of the strategic Basra-Baghdad waterway. Between February 29 and March 1, in one of the largest battles of the war, the two armies clashed and inflicted more than 25,000 fatalities on each other. Without armored and air support of their own, the Iranians faced Iraqi tanks, mortars, and helicopter gunships. Within a few weeks, Tehran opened another front in the shallow lakes of the Hawizah Marshes, just east of Al Qurnah, in Iraq, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iraqi forces, using Soviet- and French-made helicopter gunships, inflicted heavy casualties on the five Iranian brigades (15,000 men) in this Battle of Majnun.
Lacking the equipment to open secure passages through Iraqi minefields, and having too few tanks, the Iranian command again resorted to the human-wave tactic. In March 1984, an East European journalist claimed that he "saw tens of thousands of children, roped together in groups of about twenty to prevent the faint-hearted from deserting, make such an attack." The Iranians made little, if any, progress despite these sacrifices. Perhaps as a result of this performance, Tehran, for the first time, used a regular army unit, the 92nd Armored Division, at the Battle of the Marshes a few weeks later.
Within a four-week period between February and March 1984, the Iraqis reportedly killed 40,000 Iranians and lost 9,000 of their own men, but even this was deemed an unacceptable ratio, and in February the Iraqi command ordered the use of chemical weapons. Despite repeated Iraqi denials, between May 1981 and March 1984, Iran charged Iraq with forty uses of chemical weapons. The year 1984 closed with part of the Majnun Islands and a few pockets of Iraqi territory in Iranian hands. Casualties notwithstanding, Tehran had maintained its military posture, while Baghdad was reevaluating its overall strategy.
The major development in 1985 was the increased targeting of population centers and industrial facilities by both combatants. In May Iraq began aircraft attacks, long-range artillery attacks, and surface-to-surface missile attacks on Tehran and on other major Iranian cities. Between August and November, Iraq raided Khark Island forty-four times in a futile attempt to destroy its installations. Iran responded with its own air raids and missile attacks on Baghdad and other Iraqi towns. In addition, Tehran systematized its periodic stop-and-search operations, which were conducted to verify the cargo contents of ships in the Persian Gulf and to seize war materiel destined for Iraq.
The Iraqi Air Force's first real strategic bombing campaign, the so-called war of the cities, aimed at breaking civilian morale and disrupting military targets. Iraq's two efforts early in 1985, from 14 March to 7 April and 25 May to 15 June, were reportedly very effective. Opposition from the Iranian Air Force was negligible to nonexistent, as the Iraqis hit air bases and military and industrial targets all over Iran (in Tabriz, Urmia, Rasht, Bakhteran, Hamadan, Tehran, Isfahan, Dezful, Ahvaz, Kharg, Bushehr, and Shiraz). Even Iraq's lumbering old Tu-16 bombers were getting through, presumably with MiG-25 and Mirage F-1 escorts, as the Iraqis hit targets as far away as Kashan, more than 360 miles from their own bases. Iran's official Kayhan daily confirmed this, reporting that Tehran was being bombed by "Tupolevs (Tu-16 Badger and Tu-22 Blinder bombers) flying at very high altitudes." The brunt of Iraq's bombing offensive, borne by nearly 600 smaller Iraqi combat planes, has fallen on Tehran in an effort to crush Iranian morale. the Iraqis boasted of 180-plane raids on the Iranian capital. Antiwar feeling in Tehran was at an all-time high, as the Iraqis hit the city an average of twice a day and, on two occasions, six times. Among the areas hit were the Bagh-e Saba Revolutionary Guard Barracks, Tehran's main power station, the Military Staff College, the Military Academy, the main army barracks, and the Abbas Abbad Army Base. Southern Tehran's locomotive works and the heavy industrial area near Javadieh were also hit, and even the three military airfields that were supposed to protect the city-Mehrabad, Jey, and Qual'eh Murgeh-were repeatedly attacked with impunity.
Iraq's air force and 'Scud' stikes at Iranian cities pushed the Islamic Republic to look for a comparable response. Iran began the Iran-Iraq War with no SSM capability but managed to import SS-1 'Scud Bs' (R-17Es) in 1985 from Libya and in 1986 from Syria. The Revolutionary Guard Corps, which took charge of the weapons, used them against Iraq between 1985 and 1988. Iran used 'Scud Bs' from Syria, Libya and possibly North Korea against major cities, including Baghdad and Basra. During this first war of the cities, Iran's strategic depth prevented Iraq's missiles from reaching major targets such as Tehran. By 1988, however, Iraq had developed its extended range 'Scud', the al-Hussein, and took Iran by surprise with its strikes on key urban conurbations. In the spring of 1988, Iraq launched up to 200 SSMs against Tehran, Qom and Isfahan. Although only 2000 people were killed in these attacks, they caused panic in the populace and hundreds of thousands fled the cities.
During the war, Iranian leaders frequently exaggerated their capabilities in the missile field. Although their 'Scud Bs' could hit Baghdad, these weapons lacked the accuracy or destructive power to do significant damage. In addition, Iran was unable to match Iraq's quantity of missiles. Iraq fired 361 'Scud Bs' at Iran from 1982 to 1988 and about 160 al-Hussein's at Tehran in early 1988. In contrast, Iran fired 117 'Scuds' throughout the war, including perhaps 60 fired at Baghdad.
The only major ground offensive, involving an estimated 60,000 Iranian troops, occurred in March 1985, near Basra; once again, the assault proved inconclusive except for heavy casualties. In 1986, however, Iraq suffered a major loss in the southern region. On February 9, Iran launched a successful surprise amphibious assault across the Shatt al Arab and captured the abandoned Iraqi oil port of Al Faw. The occupation of Al Faw, a logistical feat, involved 30,000 regular Iranian soldiers who rapidly entrenched themselves. Saddam Hussein vowed to eliminate the bridgehead "at all costs," and in April 1988 the Iraqis succeeded in regaining the Al Faw peninsula.
Late, in March 1986, the UN secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, formally accused Iraq of using chemical weapons against Iran. Citing the report of four chemical warfare experts whom the UN had sent to Iran in February and March 1986, the secretary general called on Baghdad to end its violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on the use of chemical weapons. The UN report concluded that "Iraqi forces have used chemical warfare against Iranian forces"; the weapons used included both mustard gas and nerve gas. The report further stated that "the use of chemical weapons appear[ed] to be more extensive [in 1981] than in 1984." Iraq attempted to deny using chemicals, but the evidence, in the form of many badly burned casualties flown to European hospitals for treatment, was overwhelming. According to a British representative at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in July 1986, "Iraqi chemical warfare was responsible for about 10,000 casualties." In March 1988, Iraq was again charged with a major use of chemical warfare while retaking Halabjah, a Kurdish town in northeastern Iraq, near the Iranian border.
Unable in 1986, however, to dislodge the Iranians from Al Faw, the Iraqis went on the offensive; they captured the city of Mehran in May, only to lose it in July 1986. The rest of 1986 witnessed small hit-and-run attacks by both sides, while the Iranians massed almost 500,000 troops for another promised "final offensive," which did not occur. But the Iraqis, perhaps for the first time since the outbreak of hostilities, began a concerted air-strike campaign in July. Heavy attacks on Khark Island forced Iran to rely on makeshift installations farther south in the Gulf at Sirri Island and Larak Island. Thereupon, Iraqi jets, refueling in midair or using a Saudi military base, hit Sirri and Larak. The two belligerents also attacked 111 neutral ships in the Gulf in 1986.
Meanwhile, to help defend itself, Iraq had built impressive fortifications along the 1,200-kilometer war front. Iraq devoted particular attention to the southern city of Basra, where concrete-roofed bunkers, tank- and artillery-firing positions, minefields, and stretches of barbed wire, all shielded by an artificially flooded lake 30 kilometers long and 1,800 meters wide, were constructed. Most visitors to the area acknowledged Iraq's effective use of combat engineering to erect these barriers.
By late 1986, rumors of a final Iranian offensive against Basra proliferated. On 08 January 1987, Operation Karbala Five began, with Iranian units pushing westward between Fish Lake and the Shatt al Arab. This annual "final offensive" captured the town of Duayji and inflicted 20,000 casualties on Iraq, but at the cost of 65,000 Iranian casualties. In this intensive operation, Baghdad also lost forty-five airplanes. Attempting to capture Basra, Tehran launched several attacks, some of them well-disguised diversion assaults such as Operation Karbala Six and Operation Karbala Seven. Iran finally aborted Operation Karbala Five on 26 February 1987. Although the Iranian push came close to breaking Iraq's last line of defense east of Basra, Tehran was unable to score the decisive breakthrough required to win outright victory, or even to secure relative gains over Iraq.
In late May 1987, just when the war seemed to have reached a complete stalemate on the southern front, reports from Iran indicated that the conflict was intensifying on Iraq's northern front. This assault, Operation Karbala Ten, was a joint effort by Iranian units and Iraqi Kurdish rebels. They surrounded the garrison at Mawat, endangering Iraq's oil fields near Kirkuk and the northern oil pipeline to Turkey.
Believing it could win the war merely by holding the line and inflicting unacceptable losses on the attacking Iranians, Iraq initially adopted a static defensive strategy. This was successful in repelling successive Iranian offensives until 1986 and 1987, when the Al-Faw peninsula was lost and Iranian troops reached the gates of Al-Basrah. Embarrassed by the loss of the peninsula and concerned by the threat to his second largest city, Saddam ordered a change in strategy. From a defensive posture, in which the only offensive operations were counterattacks to relieve forces under pressure or to exploit failed Iranian assaults, the Iraqis adopted an offensive strategy. More decision-making authority was delegated to senior military commanders. The change also indicated a maturing of Iraqi military capabilities and an improvement in the armed forces' effectiveness. The success of this new strategy, plus the attendant change in doctrine and procedures, virtually eliminated Iranian military capabilities.
As the war continued, Iran was increasingly short of spare parts for damaged airplanes and had lost a large number of airplanes in combat. As a result, by late 1987 Iran had become less able to mount an effective defense against the resupplied Iraqi air force, let alone stage aerial counterattacks.
The Tanker War, 1984-87
Much of Iraq's export capability was lost during the Iran-Iraq War, either to war-related damage or due to political reasons. In 1982, for instance, Syria (allied with Iran at the time) closed the 500-mile, 650,000-bbl/d-capacity Banias pipeline, which had been a vital Iraqi access route to the Mediterranean Sea and European oil markets. By 1983, Iraq's export capabilities were only 700,000 bbl/d, or less than 30% of operable field production capacity at that time.
Iran's revenue share fell after the 1978/79 Iranian Revolution, followed soon thereafter by the Iran-Iraq War for much of the 1980s [and has not recovered since]. All Iranian onshore crude oil production and output from the Forozan field (which is blended with crude streams from the Abuzar and Doroud fields) is exported from the Kharg Island terminal located in the northern Gulf. The terminal's original capacity of 7 million bbl/d was nearly eliminated by more than 9,000 bombing raids during the Iran-Iraq War.
The tanker war seemed likely to precipitate a major international incident for two reasons. First, some 70 percent of Japanese, 50 percent of West European, and 7 percent of American oil imports came from the Persian Gulf in the early 1980s. Second, the assault on tankers involved neutral shipping as well as ships of the belligerent states.
The tanker war had two phases. The relatively obscure first phase began in 1981, and the well-publicized second phase began in 1984.
The relatively obscure first phase began in 1981, and the well-publicized second phase began in 1984. As early as May 1981, Baghdad had unilaterally declared a war zone and had officially warned all ships heading to or returning from Iranian ports in the northern zone of the Gulf to stay away or, if they entered, to proceed at their own risk. The main targets in this phase were the ports of Bandar-e Khomeini and Bandar-e Mashur; very few ships were hit outside this zone. Despite the proximity of these ports to Iraq, the Iraqi navy did not play an important role in the operations. Instead, Baghdad used Super Frelon helicopters equipped with Exocet missiles or Mirage F-1s and MiG-23s to hit its targets. Naval operations came to a halt, presumably because Iraq and Iran had lost many of their ships, by early 1981; the lull in the fighting lasted for two years.
In March 1984, the tanker war entered its second phase when Iraq initiated sustained naval operations in its self-declared 1,126-kilometer maritime exclusion zone, extending from the mouth of the Shatt al Arab to Iran's port of Bushehr. In 1981 Baghdad had attacked Iranian ports and oil complexes as well as neutral tankers and ships sailing to and from Iran; in 1984 Iraq expanded the so-called tanker war by using French Super-Etendard combat aircraft armed with Exocet missiles.
In March 1984 an Iraqi Super Etendard fired an Exocet missile at a Greek tanker south of Khark Island. Until the March assault, Iran had not intentionally attacked civilian ships in the Gulf.Neutral merchant ships became favorite targets, and the long-range Super-Etendards flew sorties farther south. Seventy-one merchant ships were attacked in 1984 alone, compared with forty-eight in the first three years of the war. Iraq's motives in increasing the tempo included a desire to break the stalemate, presumably by cutting off Iran's oil exports and by thus forcing Tehran to the negotiating table. Repeated Iraqi efforts failed to put Iran's main oil exporting terminal at Khark Island out of commission, however.
The new wave of Iraqi assaults, however, led Iran to reciprocate. In April 1984, Tehran launched its first attack against civilian commercial shipping by shelling an Indian freighter. Iran attacked a Kuwaiti oil tanker near Bahrain on May 13 and then a Saudi tanker in Saudi waters five days later, making it clear that if Iraq continued to interfere with Iran's shipping, no Gulf state would be safe. Most observers considered that Iraqi attacks, however, outnumbered Iranian assaults by three to one. Iran's retaliatory attacks were largely ineffective because a limited number of aircraft equipped with long-range antiship missiles and ships with long-range surface-to-surface missiles were deployed. Moreover, despite repeated Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, Iran itself depended on the sea-lanes for vital oil exports.
These sustained attacks cut Iranian oil exports in half, reduced shipping in the Gulf by 25 percent, led Lloyd's of London to increase its insurance rates on tankers, and slowed Gulf oil supplies to the rest of the world; moreover, the Saudi decision in 1984 to shoot down an Iranian Phantom jet intruding in Saudi territorial waters played an important role in ending both belligerents' attempts to internationalize the tanker war. Iraq and Iran accepted a 1984 UN-sponsored moratorium on the shelling of civilian targets, and Tehran later proposed an extension of the moratorium to include Gulf shipping, a proposal the Iraqis rejected unless it were to included their own Gulf ports.
Iraq began ignoring the moratorium soon after it went into effect and stepped up its air raids on tankers serving Iran and Iranian oil-exporting facilities in 1986 and 1987, attacking even vessels that belonged to the conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Iran responded by escalating its attacks on shipping serving Arab ports in the Gulf. As Kuwaiti vessels made up a large portion of the targets in these retaliatory raids, the Kuwaiti government sought protection from the international community in the fall of 1986. The Soviet Union responded first, agreeing to charter several Soviet tankers to Kuwait in early 1987. Washington, which has been approached first by Kuwait and which had postponed its decision, eventually followed Moscow's lead. United States involvement was sealed by the May 17, 1987, Iraqi missile attack on the USS Stark, in which thirtyseven crew members were killed. Baghdad apologized and claimed that the attack was a mistake. Ironically, Washington used the Stark incident to blame Iran for escalating the war and sent its own ships to the Gulf to escort eleven Kuwaiti tankers that were "reflagged" with the American flag and had American crews. Iran refrained from attacking the United States naval force directly, but it used various forms of harassment, including mines, hit-and-run attacks by small patrol boats, and periodic stop-and-search operations. On several occasions, Tehran fired its Chinese-made Silkworm missiles on Kuwait from Al Faw Peninsula. When Iranian forces hit the reflagged tanker Sea Isle City in October 1987, Washington retaliated by destroying an oil platform in the Rostam field and by using the United States Navy's Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) commandos to blow up a second one nearby.
Within a few weeks of the Stark incident, Iraq resumed its raids on tankers but moved its attacks farther south, near the Strait of Hormuz. Washington played a central role in framing UN Security Council Resolution 598 on the Gulf war, passed unanimously on July 20; Western attempts to isolate Iran were frustrated, however, when Tehran rejected the resolution because it did not meet its requirement that Iraq should be punished for initiating the conflict.
In early 1988, the Gulf was a crowded theater of operations. At least ten Western navies and eight regional navies were patrolling the area, the site of weekly incidents in which merchant vessels were crippled. The Arab Ship Repair Yard in Bahrain and its counterpart in Dubayy, United Arab Emirates (UAE), were unable to keep up with the repairs needed by the ships damaged in these attacks.
Gradual Superpower Involvement
Iranian military gains inside Iraq after 1984 were a major reason for increased superpower involvement in the war. In February 1986, Iranian units captured the port of Al Faw, which had oil facilities and was one of Iraq's major oil-exporting ports before the war.
In early 1987, both superpowers indicated their interest in the security of the region. Soviet deputy foreign minister Vladimir Petrovsky made a Middle East tour expressing his country's concern over the effects of the Iran-Iraq War. In May 1987, United States assistant secretary of state Richard Murphy also toured the Gulf emphasizing to friendly Arab states the United States commitment in the region, a commitment which had become suspect as a result of Washington's transfer of arms to the Iranians, officially as an incentive for them to assist in freeing American hostages held in Lebanon. In another diplomatic effort, both superpowers supported the UN Security Council resolutions seeking an end to the war.
The war appeared to be entering a new phase in which the superpowers were becoming more involved. For instance, the Soviet Union, which had ended military supplies to both Iran and Iraq in 1980, resumed large-scale arms shipments to Iraq in 1982 after Iran banned the Tudeh and tried and executed most of its leaders. Subsequently, despite its professed neutrality, the Soviet Union became the major supplier of sophisticated arms to Iraq. In 1985 the United States began clandestine direct and indirect negotiations with Iranian officials that resulted in several arms shipments to Iran.
By late spring of 1987, the superpowers became more directly involved because they feared that the fall of Basra might lead to a pro-Iranian Islamic republic in largely Shia-populated southern Iraq. They were also concerned about the intensified tanker war.
To avoid defeat, Iraq sought out every possible weapon. This included developing a self-sustaining capability to produce militarily significant quantities of chemical warfare agents. In the defense, integrating chemical weapons offered a solution to the masses of lightly armed Basif and Posdoran. Chemical weapons were singularly effective when used on troop assembly areas and supporting artillery. When conducting offensive operations, Iraq routinely supported the attacks with deep fires and integrated chemical fires on forward defenses, command posts, artillery positions, and logistical facilities.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq developed the ability to produce, store, and use chemical weapons. These chemical weapons included H-series blister and G-series nerve agents. Iraq built these agents into various offensive munitions including rockets, artillery shells, aerial bombs, and warheads on the Al Hussein Scud missile variant. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi fighter-attack aircraft dropped mustard-filled and tabun-filled 250 kilogram bombs and mustard-filled 500 kilogram bombs on Iranian targets. Other reports indicate that Iraq may have also installed spray tanks on an unknown number of helicopters or dropped 55-gallon drums filled with unknown agents (probably mustard) from low altitudes.
Iran launched an unsuccessful attack on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor on 30 September 1980. On 07 June 1981 Israel initiated an air attack on the same Iraqi Osirak reactor, destroying it. Iraq launched seven air attacks on the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr between 1984 and 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War, ultimately destroying the facility.
In response to Iranian missile attacks against Baghdad, some 190 missiles were fired by the Iraqis over a six week period at Iranian cities in 1988, during the 'War of the Cities'. The Iraqi missile attacks caused little destruction, but each warhead had a psychological and political impact -- boosting Iraqi morale while causing almost 30 percent of Tehran's population to flee the city. The threat of rocketing the Iranian capital with missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads is cited as a significant reason why Iran accepted a disadvantageous peace agreement.
Four major battles were fought from April to August 1988, in which the Iraqis routed or defeated the Iranians. In the first offensive, named Blessed Ramadhan, Iraqi Republican Guard and regular Army units recaptured the Al-Faw peninsula. The 36-hour battle was conducted in a militarily sophisticated manner with two main thrusts, supported by heliborne and amphibious landings, and low-level fixed-wing attack sorties. In this battle, the Iraqis effectively used chemical weapons (CW), using nerve and blister agents against Iranian command and control facilities, artillery positions, and logistics points. Three subsequent operations followed much the same pattern, although they were somewhat less complex. After rehearsals, the Iraqis launched successful attacks on Iranian forces in the Fish Lake and Shalamjah areas near Al-Basrah and recaptured the oil-rich Majnun Islands. Farther to the north, in the last major engagement before the August 1988 cease-fire, Iraqi armored and mechanized forces penetrated deep into Iran, defeating Iranian forces and capturing huge amounts of armor and artillery.
In the fall of 1988, the Iraqis displayed in Baghdad captured Iranian weapons amounting to more than three-quarters of the Iranian armor inventory and almost half of its artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers.
The Iran-Iraq war lasted nearly eight years, from September of 1980 until August of 1988. It ended when Iran accepted United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 598, leading to a 20 August 1988 cease-fire.
Casualty figures are highly uncertain, though estimates suggest more than one and a half million war and war-related casualties -- perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded, and millions were made refugees. Iran acknowledged that nearly 300,000 people died in the war; estimates of the Iraqi dead range from 160,000 to 240,000. Iraq suffered an estimated 375,000 casualties, the equivalent of 5.6 million for a population the size of the United States. Another 60,000 were taken prisoner by the Iranians. Iran's losses may have included more than 1 million people killed or maimed.
Without diminishing the horror of either war, Iranian losses in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war appear modest compared with those of the European contestants in the four years of World War I, shedding some light on the limits of the Iranian tolerance for martyrdom. The war claimed at least 300,000 Iranian lives and injured more than 500,000, out of a total population which by the war's end was nearly 60 million. During the Great War, German losses were over 1,700,000 killed and over 4,200,000 wounded [out of a total population of over 65 million]. Germany's losses, relative to total national population, were at least five times higher than Iran. France suffered over 1,300,000 deaths and over 4,200,000 wounded. The percentages of pre-war population killed or wounded were 9% of Germany, 11% of France, and 8% of Great Britain.
At the end, virtually none of the issues which are usually blamed for the war had been resolved. When it was over, the conditions which existed at the beginning of the war remained virtually unchanged. Although Iraq won the war militarily, and possessed a significant military advantage over Iran in 1989, the 1991 Persian Gulf War reduced Iraq's capabilities to a point where a rough parity existed between Iran and Iraq-conditions similar to those found in 1980. The UN-arranged cease-fire merely put an end to the fighting, leaving two isolated states to pursue an arms race with each other, and with the other countries in the region. The Iraqi military machine -- numbering more than a million men with an extensive arsenal of CW, extended range Scud missiles, a large air force and one of the world's larger armies -- emerged as the premier armed force in the Persian Gulf region. In the Middle East, only the Israel Defense Force had superior capability.
The Ayatollah Khomeini died on 03 June 1989. The Assembly of Experts--an elected body of senior clerics--chose the outgoing president of the republic, Ali Khamenei, to be his successor as national religious leader in what proved to be a smooth transition. In August 1989, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the speaker of the National Assembly, was elected President by an overwhelming majority. The new clerical regime gave Iranian national interests primacy over Islamic doctrine.
A variety of unresolved humanitarian issues from the Iran-Iraq war include a failure to identify combatants killed in action and to exchange information on those killed or missing. Iran agreed to the release of 5,584 Iraqi POW's in April 1998, and news organizations reported intermittent meetings throughout the remainder of the year between Iranian and Iraqi government officials toward reaching a final agreement on the remaining POW's held by each side. The Iranian government pledged to settle the remaining POW issues with Iraq in 1999. And joint Iran-Iraq search operations were initiated to identify remains of those missing in action.
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