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Iran-Iraq War - 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.

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Page last modified: 25-07-2019 17:41:05 ZULU