Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The First Gulf War: Iran and Iraq at War in the 1980s

The following summary is based on the research used for my old manuscript on the First Gulf War that I never did manage to sell. All end notes have been removed.

It used to be hosted at, but Yahoo!Geocities is shutting down. Since it gets a lot of hits, I'm moving it here.




Few people remember that prior to the Gulf War of 1991 in which an American-led offensive expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait and crippled the Republican Guards there was another Gulf War. This First Gulf War between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988 led directly to our own Gulf War (also called Desert Storm) by creating a crushing burden of debt that Iraq sought to erase by invading Kuwait in August 1990. The First Gulf War also resulted in a capable Iraqi military forged during eight desperate years of war with Iran. Iraqi missile capabilities, poison gas, and a large Republican Guard force were just a few of the threats faced in 1991 that were created during the war with Iran. The war that created this military also helped to shape it in ways that made it vulnerable to America's arsenal. After eight years, Iraq's military was optimized to fight Iran's military machine. Large artillery-backed infantry formations accustomed to fighting the Iranian foot-mobile, slow moving, and cumbersome infantry army in static linear battles were outclassed by the American AirLand Battle-drilled Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force. And though Iraq fielded a large armored force by 1991, it had evolved into a low-tech force that fielded numerous obsolescent but cheap tanks that could kill Iranian infantry and still overwhelm Iran's outnumbered and equally obsolete tank fleet. Only a small portion of Iraq's armor could even think about fighting American M-1s and British Challengers. In addition, the war created the forerunner of the coalition that faced Iraq in 1991. During the early part of the First Gulf War, Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia banded together to form the Gulf Cooperation Council to guard against an Iranian victory. In addition, America's commitment to the region's states was demonstrated during the tanker war in which American naval forces escorted Kuwaiti tankers despite the open-ended commitment and the hazards posed by Iranian forces. This credibility would prove valuable in 1990 and 1991. The First Gulf War is also an added piece of evidence that demonstrates the relentless pursuit of power and glory that has motivated Iraqi President Saddam Hussein since he assumed power shortly before the First Gulf War. Since then, he has invaded Iran, invaded Kuwait, and defied the world under economic sanctions in an effort to maintain a capability to build and deliver chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Despite his personal survival and American frustration that he still rules, it is an amazing record of failure and a tragic fate for the Iraqi people who have known little peace for two decades now and who have seen a generation of potential progress thrown away.

For Iran, the invasion struck when the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah's regime in 1979 was still consolidating its hold. The war submerged domestic schisms and may have saved the regime rather than bring it down as Hussein hoped in 1980. Iran's vision of Islam and a desire to spread it to other Islamic countries may very well have been blunted by the horrible cost in treasure and lives that Iran expended battering themselves against Iraq's army. Iraq may truly have served a useful function as Iraq claimed throughout the war. Iran also showed us the power of fervor. Though the Iranians were poorly equipped (after depleting their existing stocks of Shah-purchased Western weapons) and faced a competent (eventually) Iraqi military amply equipped with lethal and sometimes advanced weaponry, the Iranians gave Iraq a run for their money and could have won the war. Indeed, had Iran called it quits in 1982 after expelling the Iraqis from Iranian territory, we would have called Iran the clear winner and Iran's leaders may have been emboldened to spread their revolutionary ideas bolstered by the prestige of besting Iraq. The war also showed that even when a government spews rhetoric it can act in a rational and calculated manner in practice. Iran for years avoided drawing in the United States (routinely called the "great Satan") with reckless actions in the Gulf that might threaten the West's oil supplies. That Iran eventually succumbed and acted on her rhetoric (and prodded by frustration over failing to defeat Iraq on the ground) and did draw America into the war should not obscure the years of success at avoiding intervention against them. Iran's defeat was also a painful lesson in the perils of alienating the world which would not aid them despite the clear-cut Iraqi aggression against Iran in 1980 and repeated use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces in the latter half of the war.


When Iraq's armed forces struck Iran in the fall of 1980, most observers thought that Iraq's Soviet-supplied mechanized juggernaut would smash Iran's revolution-wracked army in short order. Even the failure of the Iraqi air force to suppress the Iranian air force and the subsequent Iranian aerial riposte against targets throughout Iraq failed to reverse the expectation of a rapid Iraqi victory. With the benefit of hindsight, it is incredible to note that Iran's stiffening resistance and Iraq's mounting casualties in the early weeks of war led some to speculate that Iraq might be compelled to escalate the stakes of the war--to demand the dismemberment of Iran rather than settle for "just" capturing Khuzestan.

It would take a while for both Iraq and the outside world to realize that Iran was no Imperial Russia of 1917-1918, whose new Bolshevik rulers ceded vast tracts of land in order to buy peace with the Germans. Instead, Iran's fractured society rallied to fight its ancient enemies from the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. Most significantly, the mistrusted regular armed forces created by the deposed Shah threw their lot in with the revolutionary government rather than see Iraq win.

The war that we view in retrospect as a disastrous and costly war was conceived by Saddam Hussein as a limited conflict against a fragile Iran. In addition to gaining vengeance against a once powerful Iran which had humiliated Iraq by forcing a border settlement favorable to Iran in 1975, Hussein sought to propel Iraq to a position of leadership. Most narrowly, by defeating Iran it would be possible for Iraq to claim leadership of the Gulf region. With Egypt then ostracized by the Arab world for signing the Camp David peace accords with Israel, the demonstration of Iraqi power against the Persians could vault Iraq to leadership of the Arab world as well. Finally, only two years prior to Iraq's hosting of a major nonaligned nations conference, the elevation of Iraq through a victorious war could even make the nonaligned nations look to Iraq for leadership. The disorder caused by the Iranian revolution seemed to make all this possible in addition to allowing Iraq to capture Khuzestan and to humiliate Iran and nullify Iran's ability to subvert Iraq at only a nominal price. Saddam Hussein's plan did not work for the simple reason that Iran did not carry out its role of victim when struck by Iraq.


As America's chosen instrument to maintain stability in the Gulf after Great Britain withdrew from the region, Iran in the 1970s amassed an impressive arsenal of advanced Western weapons. Iraq, with only a third of Iran's population and armed with poorer quality Soviet designed weapons, was clearly inferior to Iran.

The Iranian revolution changed everything. Iran's military deteriorated dramatically due to the effects of purges, desertions, and lack of maintenance for the sophisticated weapons that equipped the Iranian armed forces. The lower ranks of the army lost perhaps sixty percent of its pre-revolution strength. The other branches lost lesser but still significant fractions of their strength. Much of the equipment became inoperable including perhaps a third of Iran's tanks and half of the air force's planes (nearly all of Iran's F-14s could not fly). The departure of American advisors further hurt Iran's armed forces, and the Americans reportedly erased computer data that contained the location of spare parts throughout Iran. In the short run, that was equivalent to taking them out of the country.

The chaos wrought by the revolution, the loss of American technical assistance and political backing, and Soviet support of Iraq appeared to give the Iraqi war machine a decisive edge. This conclusion would have been correct if the Iraqi military had in fact been the well oiled machine that Hussein believed it to be. A number of problems, however, reduced the effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces.

First of all, seventy-five percent of the Iraqi army was Shiite while the government itself was Sunni. Thus, the primary instrument which Iraq hoped would blunt the appeal of Iran's brand of Shiite Islam was itself vulnerable to that very appeal. Saddam Hussein could not know if the army's lower ranks would endure even moderate casualties in a fight between a secular Sunni Iraq and the revolutionary Shiite Iranian government.

Second, the Iraqi navy was puny and effectively confined to port. Iran's navy, even after the revolution, remained vastly superior. Since Iraq exported the bulk of her oil exports through the Gulf, an invasion of Iran automatically meant that Iraq's oil exports would stop. This put pressure on the already shaky army to win fast to avoid a financial strain on Baghdad.

Third, the Iraqi air force was not nearly as formidable as it appeared on paper. Although it would be tasked with taking out the Iranian air force on the ground at the onset of the war, at the outbreak of war perhaps half of the planes were not capable of fighting. Further, Iraqi bomber squadrons were not even allowed to practice lest they become proficient enough to drop a bomb on Hussein himself.

Fourth, Saddam Hussein, like Iran's Khomeini, had recently purged his officer corps. The purge of 1978 was the most severe of a number of purges preceding the war. The fear this engendered resulted in a politicized officer corps which cultivated loyalty rather than effectiveness as the key to survival.

Finally, the best equipment was deployed around Baghdad to protect Saddam Hussein rather than being available for use against Iran.

In sum, Saddam Hussein believed that Iran was so weakened by revolution and isolation from America that Iraq, with Soviet political support and weapons, was superior to Iran. He also had to know that this superiority was fleeting. Given time to recover from the effects of the revolution, Iran could rebuild her armed forces and exert the power that had traditionally allowed Iran to dominate the Gulf. Saddam Hussein must have concluded that Iraq would never again be in as good a position vis-a-vis Iran as in September 1980.

Having decided on military means to defeat Iran's ideological threat and to solidify Iraqi power, the Iraqis had a sizable military in order to execute an invasion of Iran. Iraq's 200,000 soldiers and 2,650 tanks were organized into twelve divisions plus lesser units. The Iraqi air force possessed 332 combat aircraft, and the navy had 4,250 personnel with negligible assets. With this power, Iraq had to seize an objective in Iran that would compel the leaders in Tehran to capitulate.

The Iraqi army, which would carry the burden in a war with Iran, had many responsibilities. First, Baghdad and the government needed to be protected. A division's worth of troops in the capital and another along the border in the center carried out this mission. Second, the oil fields in the north needed to be protected from both the rival Syrians from the west and from the Kurds who live in the region but who oppose being ruled from Baghdad. Five divisions were deployed here. Finally, for the invasion itself, five armored divisions were available and deployed in the south across from Khuzestan. The Iraqis were criticized for using only five divisions to attack Iran, but in 1980 the road net was only adequate to support five or six divisions. The five invasion divisions were tasked with capturing Khuzestan and triggering a revolt by the area's ethnic Arab residents. Troops would seize Khorramshahr and Abadan in the south; Ahvaz further north where an Iranian tank division was headquartered; and Dezful, at the northern end of Khuzestan, whose seizure would block the route that Iranian forces further north would need to travel in order to rapidly reinforce Khuzestan. At this point, Iran should have sued for peace in a modern version of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk rather than see the revolution threatened.

Although this plan did not work, Iraq's military options really were limited to Khuzestan. No other critical objective was within reach of Iraq's military power. Tehran, Iran's capital, was guarded by three divisions and is located deep within Iran with rugged terrain between the city and the border. The Strait of Hormuz is also vital to Iran in order to export oil but Iraq was unable to project power that far south. Practically speaking, Khuzestan was all there was given that Iraq had decided on a military solution to Iran's perceived threat to Iraq. Fortunately for Iraq, only one Iranian division was scattered throughout Khuzestan along with some Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) forces. Despite all the handicaps of limited options and defensive considerations, Iraq would have a five-to-one advantage in the theater of war.


Subversion, border clashes, and provocative statements and acts heightened tensions between Iran and Iraq throughout 1980. By August, artillery as being used in the border clashes and Iraq had massed 300 tanks at the border near Qasr-e-Shirin. On September 10, 1980, Iraq tested the waters by seizing border villages that Iran failed to turn over to Iraq under the 1975 agreement. Iran inexplicably did not respond forcefully to this overt aggression. The incident seemed to confirm that Iran was engulfed in chaos and unable to resist Iraqi might.

On September 22, 1980, Iraq ended the quasi war of words and clashes by initiating Qaddassiya Saddam--the invasion of Iran. Iraqi planes struck at Iranian airfields and installations but succeeded only in rousing the Iranian air force into action. The ground war was carried out by an advance of four divisions into Khuzestan with one additional division held in reserve.

The war progressed through a number of stages:

STAGE 1: Iraqi Offensive and Capture of Khuzestan, September 1980 to December 1980.

STAGE 2: Iranian Counter-offensive and Recapture of Khuzestan, January 1981 to June 1982.

STAGE 3: Iranian Offensive and Stalemate, July 1982 to June 1984.

STAGE 4: The Search for Flanks (Tanker War and Kurdish Revolt), July 1984 to March 1987.

STAGE 5: Iraq Regains the Initiative and America Intervenes, April 1987 to April 1988.

STAGE 6: Iranian Collapse, May 1988 to August 1988.

Stages 5 and 6 are further distinguished by the Americanization of the Tanker War, a process by which the American-led West entered the Gulf in force to ally, de facto, with Iraq to combat Iran.


The Iraqi invasion was preceded by an air offensive that attempted to destroy the Iranian air force on the ground. Equipped with modern American-designed planes, the Iranian air force was potentially a lethal threat to the Iraqis. For three days, Iraqi warplanes struck ten Iranian military airfields, radar installations, and supply depots. The Iraqis failed to inflict significant damage and the Iranians launched counter-strikes that surprised the Iraqis with their strength.

The Iraqi main effort against Khuzestan kicked off from Al Amarah and Basra. The Al Amarah division advanced on Dezful and Ahvaz while the Basra-based forces advanced on Khorramshahr and Abadan. Troops from this thrust later turned north to threaten Ahvaz.

In the extreme south, Iraqi armor was repulsed with heavy losses after storming Khorramshahr unsupported. Iraq hastily trained commandos in urban warfare and renewed the attack. On October 25, 1980, the Iraqis succeeded in capturing the city. Ominously, the victory cost the Iraqis 5,000 casualties. For a state supposedly on the verge of collapse, Iran was quickly making Iraq's plan for a limited, cheap, and victorious war nothing but a dream.

Khorramshahr was the only major battle the Iraqis were willing to initiate during the invasion. Nearby Abadan was not assaulted and instead, Iraqi troops sought to encircle the city. In late October, Iraqi troops established a bridgehead across the Karun River and sent one column south to block the main road into Abadan. Iraq never succeeded in isolating the city, however, and Iran was able to keep the city's defenders supplied.

In the center of the invasion front was Ahvaz, the base for the Iranian armored division that represented the only regular army unit capable of resisting the initial Iraqi invasion. Two Iraqi divisions converged on the city. One division marched out of Basra to reach the Karun River where it threatened that city from the south. Another division from Al Amarah advanced on Ahvaz, sweeping aside Pasdaran forces that tried to halt them in the open but faltering once the division reached urban areas. Susangerd, along the Iraqi supply line stretching from Al Amarah to Ahvaz, was bypassed despite being undefended. The lack of infantry in the Iraqi invasion spearheads made it too risky to enter the city. The unsupported Iraqi armor that finally reached Ahvaz went no further without the supporting infantry that would have enabled the Iraqi tanks to enter and fight for the city. Ahvaz remained as a rallying point for Iranian troops to gather and prepare for a counter-offensive.

At the northern end of Khuzestan lay Dezful. In addition to being a major oil center, the city was a key road and rail center vital to Iran's ability to rush reinforcements to oppose Iraq's invasion. The single Iraqi division that advanced from Al Amarah rolled all the way up to the city gates where it halted. The Iraqis shelled the city but did not enter it.

The Iraqi war plan had failed. Iraq seized Khorramshahr but failed at Abadan, Ahvaz, and Dezful. The Iraqis failed even to capture both banks of the Shatt al-Arab in the extreme south along the border. The failure to advance into Khuzestan in the south and push the Iranians away from the border meant that Iraq would not be able to export oil through their Shatt al-Arab facilities as long as the war raged. Iran's army rallied to defend the nation from the invaders and even worse, the residents of Khuzestan failed to rise in revolt to solidify the Iraqi conquest. Iraqi troops should have been digging in following a successful liberation of Arabestan to present Iran with a formidable defense that could not be breached. Instead, in November, Iraq found it necessary to renew the advance. Troops rolled out of Hamid to make another attempt to capture Ahvaz. Iran's response was to open flood gates that loosed torrents of water that destroyed 150 Iraqi vehicles and halted the attack cold. Other Iraqi military thrusts in November, including one directed at Susangerd, were stopped by Iranian troops who had recovered from the shock of the initial invasion and who were gaining strength daily.

Iraqi military moves also aimed to gain ground in the north more suitable for defensive operations. Troops seized chunks of Iranian territory at Mehran and Qasr-e-Shirin where the more rugged terrain on the Iranian side of the border provided better cover. Later, in December, Iraqi troops crossed the border into Iran (across from Penjwin) where they could better defend against any Iranian thrust aimed at the Kirkuk oil region.

On the political front, Iraqi defenses were improved by the October 27, 1980 agreement between Iraq and Jordan to establish a Joint Military Command. Iraqi strategic depth was greatly increased by the availability of Jordanian military facilities well to the west of Iran's military reach. On December 7, 1980, the Iraqi "blitzkrieg" was officially over when Iraq announced that all objectives of the offensive had been achieved and that Iraqi forces would now defend their gains. In reality, the war had just begun. Iran had taken Iraq's best shot and beginning in October began funneling regular army troops into Khuzestan to fight the invaders. Although there had been too few Iranians to stem the Iraqi tide at the border, as Iranian regulars and irregulars fell back on the region's cities they were able to halt the cautious Iraqis who refrained from engaging in costly battles to capture those cities. Only at Khorramshahr were the Iraqis willing to suffer casualties and Iran exacted what was then a terrible price. The price of Khorramshahr would be a bargain in retrospect as the casualty count mounted due to spirited Iranian counter attacks in the years ahead.

Despite losing a good part of Khuzestan, Iran won the opening round by surviving and defeating Iraq's plan of compelling Iran to capitulate. Iran still had the problem of ejecting the invaders, but the crisis of invasion had passed.


After surviving Iraq's invasion, Iran's objective was straightforward: expel the invaders. For the next eighteen months, Iran focused her energies on this problem The first effort was not encouraging. The regular army, commanded by Prime Minister Bani Sadr who hoped to use this position to improve his political position, was ordered to strike. To Tehran's religious rulers, failure to drive out the invaders called into question the loyalties of the already suspect regular army. On January 5, 1981, the regulars struck in the Susangerd region. Three weak Iranian tank regiments with accompanying (but ill-coordinated) infantry units advanced against the Iraqis who were waiting for the expected attack. As the Iranians approached, the Iraqi troops feigned a retreat sucking the Iranian armor into a killing zone. As the Iranian spearheads reached Hoveyzeh, the Iraqis counter attacked from three sides and destroyed 100 and captured 150 tanks that were abandoned by the Iranians in their haste to retreat.

Two months later the Iraqis struck back near Susangerd but were easily halted. The gap of time between stopping the Iranian attack and the subsequent Iraqi counter attack was simply too great to exploit the January victory. This Iraqi attack was the last of their offensives for quite some time. With Iran not yet ready to attack again, the following months were characterized by infantry raids, artillery duels, and logistics and engineering work. While the ground stalemate continues, Iran's air force executed a daring raid against an Iraqi air base in western Iraq. The Iranian Phantoms reportedly destroyed 46 Iraqi planes on the ground.

In May, the Iranians finally struck again. Their attack ejected the Iraqis from the commanding heights overlooking Susangerd and marked Iran's first success in regaining ground.

Another long lull ensued and it was not until the fall of 1981 that Iran's counter offensive began in earnest. Despite a year to prepare, the Iraqis were unable to cope with the Iranian attacks that ultimately drove Iraq from Khuzestan. Abadan, held by Iran but besieged by Iraqi troops, was the logical focus for a relief drive by Iran. The Iranians succeeded in distracting the Iraqis from Abadan through diversionary attacks. The main effort, Operation Thamin al-Aimma, kicked off on September 27, 1981. Two Iranian infantry divisions backed by armor struck the Iraqi tank division that held blocking positions along the road to Abadan south of the Karun River. Saddam Hussein's unwillingness to surrender land allowed the Iranians to bypass Iraqi strongpoints and decimate the Iraqi division. The subsequent Iraqi counter attack with a tank brigade was routed by the Iranians. Iran's victory broke the Iraqi siege and opened the land route into Abadan.

The next blow fell two months later at Bostan in the northern part of Khuzestan. Operation Jerusalem Way lasted more than a week beginning November 29, 1981. After fierce fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, Iran liberated Bostan. Jerusalem Way was noteworthy as the first offensive in which the Iranians used human wave tactics. While costly in lives for the Iranians, by capturing Bostan the Iranians complicated Iraq's defenses by eliminating an important supply route and by crippling Iraqi lateral communications. This was especially critical because of Iraq's dearth of troops to hold the lengthy front.

While a success, the capture of Bostan capped a year of effort that had taken only small steps toward liberating Khuzestan. On the other hand, Iran's limited successes were made by a nation only partially mobilized against the highly mechanized Iraqi army. Further, Iraq's troops had faired poorly on the defense since the victory in January. In their attempt to hold rigid frontlines Iraqi troops were cut up, surrounded, and defeated in detail by the footmobile Iranians attackers. Iran had a long way to go, but based on these operations had every reason to be optimistic that Iraq would be driven from Iranian soil.

Iraq's strategy of hanging on and hoping that Iran would sue for peace had not been a success thus far. In an effort to make Iran pay a price for continuing the war and to complicate Iran's preparations for further offensives, Iraq carried out a number of spoiling attacks in February and March 1982. The Iraqi attacks failed to dissuade or delay the Iranians who lumbered into action in the middle of March. Striking at night to avoid Iraqi firepower, 100,000 Iranians executed Operation Undeniable Victory in the Dezful-Shush region. The Pasdaran and Basij provided the bulk of the manpower while regulars of a tank division gave the offensive the needed punch of heavy weapons as well as logistical support. Iraqi planes flew 150 sorties per day in support while Iran threw helicopter gunships into the battle. The Iranians melded mediaeval fanaticism by means of frenzied infantry frontal attacks with mobile armored onslaughts that turned the flanks of pinned frontline Iraqi defenders. The Iraqis broke and Iran encircled soldiers from two Iraqi divisions. The shattered remnants of the Iraqi army fell back to the Deweirey River where they established a new line of defense.

Iraq's offer to Tehran to withdraw from Iran in exchange for negotiations to end the war was ignored and, given Iranian battlefield success, seemingly irrelevant. Saddam Hussein's recognition that his determination to hold every meter of Khuzestan had contributed to the latest military disaster led him to rescind his hold-at-all-costs order on March 26, 1982. Hussein also pleaded with the Arab world for help:

... it is the time for real support. We really are fighting for all the Arabs now, and we are asking for real involvement in this war.

In the space of less than a year and a half, Iraq had gone from being the sword of the Arab world that had set out to smash the Persians to a beleaguered victim that needed the help of the Arab world.

Iran's commitment to waging war became apparent in April, when Operation Jerusalem struck in the Ahvaz-Susangerd region. The Iranians penetrated the Iraqi lines and drove into Iraqi-held Khuzestan, threatening to encircle Iraqi defenders and add them to the growing Iranian POW camps. Iraq responded by falling back and abandoning territory. As the battle raged, another Iranian thrust crossed the Karun River. The pressure was too much and Iraq abandoned central and northern Khuzestan, launching counter attacks in a futile attempt to slow the pursuing Iranians. Thirty thousand Iraqis were left behind to hold the fortified city of Khorramshahr against 70,000 approaching Iranians in the hopes of holding the one tangible gain from the invasion. Iran's assault on the city began on May 22, 1982, and cracked the defense in only thirty-six hours of fighting. Twelve thousand Iraqis were not quite nimble enough in escape and headed for imprisonment. Yet as bad as this debacle was, at least most escaped to fight again because of the retreat. A month later, Iraq announced that all troops would be withdrawn from Iran within ten days. Iraq carried out this promise and Iraqi troops settled into border fortifications that had been under construction since the fall of 1981. They would be tested again.


In mid 1982, with Iraq largely expelled from Iranian territory, Tehran had a choice to make--end the war by declaring a well deserved victory or pressing on into Iraq to seek vengeance and total victory. In addition to the heady rush of battlefield success, Iran's troops received a material boost by finally cracking the American-designed computer inventory system. By identifying the amounts of spare parts and equipment plus their locations, Iran became the beneficiary of an "American airlift equivalent" to resupply its armed forces. Statements coming out of Tehran reflected the indecision. Iran's speaker of parliament even managed to combine the conflicting objectives in one statement, "We are not going to attack any territory. We only want our rights." He added that one of those 'rights' was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

As Iran massed troops northeast of Basra, the Iraqis were reeling after losing a third of their army during the retreat from Khuzestan. In addition, only a third of Iraq's air force was in flying condition. The impact of Iran's victory was also felt amongst Iraq's civilian population. Iraqi Shiites, who Hussein feared were vulnerable to Iranian propaganda, rioted in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

On July 13, 1982, the beginning of Operation Ramadan made it clear that Tehran had decided to go for total victory. This attempt to capture Basra failed as the Iraqis rediscovered the will to fight. On the 16th, a follow up Iranian attack further north scored an initial gain by driving Iraq's troops back. The Iraqis maintained their composure and hit both flanks of the Iranian penetration., mauling the Iranians and sending them back to their start lines. A third attack along the Khorramshahr-to-Baghdad road on the 23rd also stalled. Two more attacks before the end of the month by Iran left their troops no closer to capturing Basra. One of the weapons in Iraq's arsenal that contributed to the Iranian defeat was tear gas. An entire Iranian division was hit with the nonlethal agent and thrown into chaos. This weapon foreshadowed a future Iraqi tactic of using lethal poison gas. Another early indication of Iraq's evolving strategy for winning the war was the strike at Iran's Kharg Island oil export facilities in the northern Gulf.

Iraq's nadir was endured and one result of defensive successes and apparent ability to conceivably win the war was Moscow's decision to renew arms shipments. Iraq's predicament and the specter of an Iranian victory also moved America to "tilt" toward Iraq. The Iranians, in turn, began using their Basij volunteers as cannon fodder in bloody human wave attacks. Until this time, the Basij had been mainly used as porters to supply the frontline troops.

Although checked, the Iranians hoped that this was merely temporary. The Ayatollah Khomeini himself exhorted Iraq's enlisted troops to rise up:

Our brothers have come to save you and send this oppressor regime to hell. Save your country and do not let its destiny be decided by America.

Iran shifted attention to the open plains east of Baghdad where 100,000 Iranian soldiers had massed ready to plunge into Iraq. Despite the lack of armor, Iran's soldiers smashed themselves against the Iraqi defenses in Operation Muslim Ibn Aqil for the first ten days of October. But without the armor and other material assistance that the regulars possessed, the attack was smashed. The Iraqis bent under the attack but did not break and counter-attacked to end the Iranian offensive. The government in Tehran did not even seem to mind that the regulars had largely opted out of what had become an offensive war to strengthen the revolutionary government.

The next Iranian blow fell southwest of Musian, between the Khorramshahr-Basra front and the central front where Muslim Ibn-Aqil had been launched. This attack was about the same size as the previous offensive and also lacked armor. It lasted from November 1 to 11, 1982. This time, the rains hampered Iraqi armor and the Iranians were able to grind forward to capture Abu Girab within Iraq before Iraqi resistance stopped them

The year 1982 ended with Iraq bloodied but still holding the line. Saddam Hussein's war machine had survived its mid-year nadir and recovered. Iran failed to deliver a knockout blow but discovered that her possession of the initiative allowed her to transfer troops laterally along the front looking for weaknesses. Despite failure to smash Iraq the potential existed for a big win against a stretched Iraqi army whose only sizable strategic reserve was composed of the poorly trained Popular Army.

Iran did score a major success in the latter part of 1982 within Iran itself. In September, a combined force of Pasdaran, Basij, and regulars captured Engaweh from the rebellious Iranian Kurds. The Iranian Kurds had held this area for four years, but Tehran was finally gaining the advantage. Once the Kurds were subdued, Iran would be able to open up a new front against Iraq in the north.

In the meantime, Iran geared up for even bigger sledgehammer blows against the Iraqis. For Tehran, failure in the last half of 1982 was not due to errors in strategy but to failure to attack with enough power. Much was expected from the Iranian foot soldier who bore the brunt of the war. Rafsanjani himself stated that the forthcoming attack, Operation Before Dawn, would be the "last" offensive and would "decide the fate of the region." Two hundred thousand men attacked on a forty kilometer front from February 6-26, 1983. Two Iranian regular divisions with supporting armor aided the largely Pasdaran effort. The fervor and sheer numbers sorely tested the Iraqis who threw every available reserve unit into the line and who managed to fly 200 sorties per day in support of the defenders. A week after the attack was launched it became clear that despite the effort Iran's troops would not crack the Iraqi line. Rafsanjani was compelled to retract his earlier boast by admitting that the attack was not the last one after all.

Although not the last attack, the Iranians did pause for two months while they gathered forces and supplies. Iran's large offensives were usually followed by long lulls that allowed the Iraqis to recover from the periodic beatings they endured. It was a major problem for Iran's attrition strategy and was compounded by Iran's diplomatic isolation which made it more difficult to purchase weapons, unlike Iraq's ready access to cash and weaponry in whatever quantities Iraq needed.

Though slow to attack, Iran remained determined to win militarily. On April 10, 1983, Iran struck again with the immediate objective of Fuka, east of Al Amarah. A mostly Pasdaran offensive, Operation Dawn failed to defeat the Iraqis.

In May, in Iraq's Kurdish regions where Kurds were rebelling in growing strength, two Turkish commando brigades supported by air power crossed into Iraq to battle the Kurds. Turkey's battle with its own Kurdish minority led her to cooperate with Hussein against a common enemy. Another operation saw Turkish troops enter northern Iraq briefly to help defend the oil pipeline that entered and crossed Turkey. The pipeline provided Iraq with the majority of its oil export capacity.

Despite Turkish help, the Kurdish region of Iraq proved to be a weak point for Baghdad during the war. On July 22, 1983, Operation Dawn Two signaled the opening of this new front. Iranian troops managed to seize Haj Omran in the attack and hold it against an Iraqi poison gas attack. Iraq's first use of poison gas in the war was a major escalation. The Iraqis hit the Iranian troops on the mountain peaks with mustard gas while Iraqi troops lower down the slopes were poised to advance. Unfortunately for the Iraqi assault troops, the Iraqis were unfamiliar with the properties of the heavier-than-air agent and the gas descended the mountain onto the exposed Iraqi troops.

Back on the central front, near Mehran, Dawn Three was begun on July 30, 1983 and lasted until August 9th. One hundred and fifty thousand troops participated in this attack. Withering Iraqi firepower in support of deeply entrenched troops slaughtered the advancing Iranians. The attack went nowhere and the Iraqis even emerged from their bunkers to counter attack into Iran and capture Mehran. It is easy to have disdain for the folly that such tactics demonstrated but one should not discount the bravery and devotion to their cause. The Iranian soldiers displayed the same determination that Union troops at Fredericksburg showed while advancing against the massed rifle fire of the Confederates. Iraq was holding but paying a price in lives and money. To the world Saddam Hussein projected confidence. Yet behind the bravado the financial strain was enormous as was the strain on the frontline troops who faced and defeated repeated and unnerving human wave assaults.

The Iraqis spent two more months sitting in their fortifications passively waiting for the Iranians to lunge forward again. On October 20, 1983, the Iranians launched a month-long offensive named Dawn Four. The objective was Penjwin in Iraq's northern Kurdish region. Iran hoped that the rough terrain and growing Kurdish insurrection would balance Iran's material inferiority. Iranian troops pushed forward several kilometers in this poor terrain. As with the previous Iranian attack in the north, Iraq used poison gas against the Iranians but this time employed it properly.

The setbacks Iran had suffered trying to pierce Iraq's border defenses frustrated the leadership in Tehran. Despite battlefield failure, the commitment of the Iranian government to overthrowing Saddam Hussein had tied the legitimacy of the government to achieving that goal--or at least pursuing it.

Iraq on the other hand, despite defensive victories, was mortgaging her future to finance the purchase of weapons to maintain the firepower advantage that allowed Iraq's army to hold the lengthy front. Combined with the casualties Iraq was suffering, the economic strain raised the possibility that Iraq might yet break. It was not at all clear that Iraq's ability to borrow money would outlast Iranian willingness to die. Iran could even conceivably win a "final offensive" and pour masses of men through the gap to collapse Iraq's defenses. It was also possible that Iraq could hold her front yet still lose if the majority Shiites of Iraq succumbed to Iranian overtures to rise up against the Sunni government in Baghdad. Although these factors argued against continuing Iraq's defensive strategy, Iraqi fear of casualties and failure on the offensive in 1980 when the balance of forces was clearly in Iraq's favor seemed to preclude Iraqi offensive action on the ground as the solution to Iraq's predicament. Hoping Iran would tire of war was the only hope for the time being.

Iran began the new year with 750,000 men on the front and 200,000 more in reserve. The first attack of the year was a minor probe in the north at the beginning of February. Its significance lay in the major Iraqi response which consisted of bombing Iranian civilian targets in what became known as the first "war of the cities." Iran replied by shelling Shiite Basra signaling Iran's practical abandonment of posing as the liberator of Iraq's Shiites. Neither side would experience any success in prompting a revolt or a breakdown in morale by attacking civilians.

If intended to deter Iran from attacking, the Dawn Five "final offensive" disabused Baghdad of this notion. Begun on February 15, 1984, masses of Iranian foot soldiers struck through the swamps north of Basra. Few Iraqi troops opposed the drive through the poor terrain and Iran's helicopter-supported troops reached the Tigris River between Al Amarah and Al Qurna where they cut the Basra-to-Baghdad road. Although the Iranian light infantry was able to penetrate the swamps to reach the river, once on dry land the poorly equipped Iranians were unable to hold their ground. Iraq massed armor and artillery using their good road net and drove the Iranians back into the swamp and compelled a further retreat back to their start lines. Iran reportedly suffered 3,000 casualties for no gain.

Dawn Six followed beginning February 22, 1984, and attempted to smash through the Iraqi lines along a 200 kilometer front between Mehran and Musian in the center. One regular armored division supported the masses of Basij and Pasdaran. The frontal assaults made minor penetrations of the front but were stopped cold by the 24th.

Yet another suicidal charge, this one across from Basra and called Operation Khaybar, was carried out against the Iraqi lines from February 14 to March 19, 1984. Hoping that their soldiers' eagerness to die would overwhelm the defending Iraqis, a quarter of a million troops struck across the open desert terrain only to be met by a mechanized Iraqi force that swept around the Iranian flanks. Iraqi firepower stunned and smashed the Iranians. Further north, the Iranians did manage to grab much of the oil-rich Majnoon Island. This was a serious loss for Iraq should the war end with the island still in Iranian hands.

Following an early March Iranian operation that tried unsuccessfully to sever the north-south road near Al Amarah in the Howizeh Marshes, the Iraqis devoted themselves to counter-attacking at Majnoon. The Iraqis swept across the island with helicopter gunships and commandos and inflicted heavy casualties as they recaptured the western part of the island. Western sources estimated that 20,000 Iranians died in the battles in the swamps.

During these Iranian offensives that produced few tangible gains, large numbers of Iranians had been killed by the Iraqis who used poison gas to increase the carnage in the hope that Iran would crack. Following these defensive victories, Iraq also began launching brigade-sized attacks to force Iran to use up scarce stockpiles of ammunition and weapons and to disrupt Iran's attack plans. This strategy did not seem to bear fruit as the Iranians gave as good as they got in terms of casualties. Iraqi deserters indicated that Baghdad had a problem and that it was still a guess as to who would break first.

Iran responded to the defeats and carnage by establishing closer regular army-Pasdaran cooperation and carrying out training in conventional tactics for the Pasdaran. The remainder of the year was spent in this type of training and in building a road net behind the front as the Iraqis had done. Iran also aggressively patrolled the swamps in the south and succeeded in driving the Iraqis west to drier ground. Pontoon bridges and anti-aircraft weapons were deployed as well and gave the Iranians another avenue for striking the Iraqis.


With both sides bloodied and determined to fight but apparently unable to win with the present strategies, 1984 witnessed the fruition of a new stage that was visible sporadically during the third stage. Both sides began to seek the vulnerable flanks of the enemy to bypass the stalemate on the main front. Iraq desperately wanted to fight anywhere but the main front while Iran needed another front to stretch the Iraqis further to make them vulnerable on the main front. From July 1984 to March 1987, Baghdad and Tehran sought their enemy's weak spots.

Iraq's choice of a flank was the Gulf, where Iranian oil exports sailed to supply the rickety Iranian war machine. Already in early 1984, as large-scale ground battles raged, Iraqi warplanes had struck tankers using Iran's Kharg Island. At the end of March, the Iraqis used their Exocet-armed Super Etendards for the first time and in July, Iraq's navy even struck Iran's off-shore Cyrus oil field. By the end of the year, Iraq would launch 53 attacks against civilian ships.

Although Iran responded to Iraq's oil war in the Gulf by attacking neutral shipping involved in Iraq's trade (18 attacks in 1984 ), Iran primarily looked to the northern Kurdish front for new advantages because the Gulf posed only dangers and few advantages for Iran as a theater of war. Iran briefly confronted Saudi Arabia in mid-1984 by sending F-4 Phantoms to engage Saudi Arabia's AWACS directed F-15 Eagles. Iran lost two planes for her troubles and later struck a Saudi tanker in the Gulf. These actions reflected the Ayatollah Khomeini frustration at being thwarted in his goal of spreading his own revolutionary brand of Shia Islam to Iraq. The ayatollah lambasted the Arab world for its support of Saddam Hussein.

In October 1984, Iran finally struck again on the ground to remind the Iraqis that the ground war could be waged at Iran's option. During the attack and subsequent Iraqi counter attacks, the Iranians managed to recapture and hold Mehran.

Iraq struck the first blow in 1985 beginning on January 28th in the Qasr-e-Shirin region. The Iranians contained the attack and by early February the Iraqi offensive petered out. It was not until March that the Iranians made their next big effort since the failed string of offensives in early 1984. Operation Badr was launched northeast of Al Qurnah through swampy terrain. The 100,000 strong Iranian force succeeded in cutting the Baghdad-to-Basra road in two places. The Iraqis counter-attacked backed by artillery, air strikes, and the Republican Guard (sometimes called Presidental Guards)division which hitherto had remained in Baghdad. The Iraqis reopened the road and killed perhaps 15,000 Iranians during the offensive and counter-attack. The cost to Iraq was 8,000 to 12,000 dead. In addition to slugging it out toe-to-toe on the ground with the Iranians, the Iraqis initiated the second "war of the cities" during March. Iran responded to the furious barrage with attacks of her own against Iraqi civilians.

Iran also abandoned the hammer blows that had characterized Badr and many earlier offensives. For the most part, Iran adopted a policy of smaller, so-called "al-Quds" attacks to pin the Iraqis in place, make sure the Iraqis had to continue spending borrowed money, and keep them guessing as to where a major blow might fall. In addition, Iran looked to the Iraqi Kurds to help wrest territory in the north from the Iraqis. Through much of 1984, the main Kurdish resistance group , the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), had observed a cease-fire with Baghdad. In late 1984, however, the PUK renewed the struggle. A rival Kurdish group, the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) had already thrown in its lot with Iran to fight Iraq despite Iran's war against her own Kurds.

Iraq, in contrast to Iran, saw many advantages to escalating the fighting in the Gulf and expanded her capacity to project air power in the Gulf by learning the difficult task of in-flight refueling for her French-built Mirage fighters. In addition, the introduction of the vaunted Exocet anti-ship missile (whose reputation and sale value had been greatly enhanced based on a small number of successful strikes by the Argentineans against the British invasion fleet in 1982) raised Iraqi hopes. Iraqi naval warfare, however, suffered from the same stop and go nature that characterized Iran's ground war. Attacks on tankers or on Kharg Island itself such as on May 30, 1985, were followed by lulls that allowed Iran to repair the damage, adopt counter measures, and ultimately keep the oil flowing. Iraq made a good effort at choking off Iran beginning in mid-August 1985. From then until the end of December Iraq struck Kharg Island with sixty air raids. The attacks reportedly did succeed in temporarily halting oil exports from Kharg during September.

Passivity in the naval war was frustrating for Iran. No Iraqi shipping traffic was vulnerable to Iranian counter measures since Iraqi trade went through neighboring states such as Kuwait or Jordan. Iran could only attack neutrals and despite enduring Iraqi air raids Iran struck only 14 times against ships traversing the Gulf. The frustration was building, however, and Tehran threatened "grave consequences" if the nominally neutral Arab Gulf states continued to ship supplies to Iraq. Still, Tehran ordered nothing rash enough to provoke American intervention to safeguard the West's oil supplies. Iraq's Arab Gulf allies also played a role in muting Iran's response inasmuch as it was in their interests as Gulf oil exporters to keep the Gulf from becoming a war zone.

By the end of December 1985, Iran sent a new wave of Basij to the front. The Basij were sure signs of a pending "final" offensive. Unseen to outside observers, Iran had trained her soldiers in river-crossing tactics on the lakes of northern Iran. Bridging equipment, boats, and actual training for the Basij combined to give Iran an expanded attack capability. War weariness, a seeming oxymoron in revolutionary Iran, was becoming more visible as time passed. since Badr in March. From Dezful south to the Gulf, Iranian troop concentrations faced the dug-in Iraqis who had to be ready to meet threats anywhere along the lengthy front. Dawn Eight was executed on February 9, 1986, with a small attack north of Basra. Two days later, 64 kilometers north of Basra, Iran launched another small attack. Both were repulsed. Meanwhile, the Iranians swung their main blow in the extreme south at Fao where Iraqi Popular Army units held the hitherto "quiet" sector. Umm Al-Rassa Island in the Shatt al-Arab fell to the Iranians who quickly vaulted the river obstacle to land at six different points along a 65-kilometer front under cover of bad weather. Fao itself fell by February 10, 1986, and on the 13th the Iranians attempted to break out of the bridgehead and seize the Iraqi naval base at Umm Qasr. The Iraqis checked this advance and belatedly counter-attacked. The Iraqi response was delayed while Iraqi forces counter-attacked further north to recapture the economically valuable (because of oil deposits) Majnoon Island.

The Iraqi offensive to recapture Fao was prosecuted vigorously. The Republican Guards were committed and Baghdad again resorted to poison gas. Both armies clutched at one another in a death grip that lasted until late April on the narrow stretch of swampy ground. Iranian artillery from the east bank swept the Iraqis who slowly ground their way south in the daylight hours behind a pulverizing barrage of their own and defended at night against spirited Iranian counter-attacks. Yet despite the massive effort that reflected the clear importance to Iraq of reversing this Iranian success, Iran held her gains. An Iranian academic summarized the Iraqi defeat quite well: "The Iranian people know that Iraq showed weakness." The obviousness of the Iraqi defeat masked the equally important fact that Iraqi troops fought and died in large numbers. Long thought a fragile instrument, the Iraqi army showed it would suffer in battle and not collapse.

Further north, on February 25, 1986, as Dawn Eight was fought around the Fao Peninsula, Dawn Nine was executed. Iranian troops supported by Iraqi Kurds captured Chwarta and held it against the Iraqi counterattacks that followed.

Dawn Eight and Nine had hit the Iraqis at the extreme south and north of their defenses while an army of 350,000 remained poised near Susangerd. Yet Iran did not live up to her renewed boasts to end the war on the ground and attack in the center in a bid to crack the by now weary Iraqi defenders. This failure to attack, most likely from logistic failings caused by Iran's diplomatic isolation, may have been Iran's last chance to end the war victoriously on the offensive.

In the aftermath of Dawn Eight, Moscow dispatched thousands of advisors, may of whom were sent to frontline units, to prop up Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait responded by restoring an earlier agreement with Iraq to sell 350,000 barrels of oil per day in Iraq's name, an action that infuriated Iran. Iraq herself took concrete action on May 17, 1986, by crushing the 5,000 man Iranian garrison at Mehran with a four-division assault. Iran refused Iraq's offer to trade Mehran for Fao and during the following Karbala One Offensive from June 30 to July 9, 1986, reaped an easy victory by recapturing Mehran.

Iraq continued her air offensive which included a strike at Sirri Island just 240 kilometers north of the Strait of Hormuz. The attack required in-flight refueling to accomplish. Iran's response included opening a new oil export facility further south at Larak Island and installing chaff dispensers and anti-aircraft guns on selected tankers, using electronic countermeasures and towed radar reflectors to draw away Iraqi Exocets from real targets. and deploying tugboats to assist damaged tankers. More damaging to Iran's economy was the rapid decline of oil prices. While Iraq could borrow money to make up for lower oil prices, Iran relied on oil revenue for weapons and munitions. Iran's President Khamenei recognized this insurmountable fact of life stating "the price war is no less important to us than the military war." Indeed, in a July 1986 address to 8,000 Iranian commanders, Iran's rulers broke disturbing news that Iran's crumbling economy required a military victory by March 1987.

The Fao success may have reinvigorated Iranian morale but economic reality could be put off only so long. As Iran's war machine was starved of funds, Iran faced a daunting task of ending the war victoriously. Despite the Fao victory and the still potent ground force poised to strike Iraq again, time was running out for Iran. In mid-1986, Iraq took steps to make sure that they would not have to be weak anywhere on the front as they had been at Fao. A major expansion of the army was commenced and by September 1986, each of Iraq's seven corps fielded 100,000 soldiers. In addition, the Republican Guards were expanded into a large corps-sized force.

Iran's September 1986 Karbala Two and Three offensives in Kurdistan and at Fao, respectively, failed to move the Iraqi lines. And despite Iranian hopes, nobody rose up in Iraq to overthrow Hussein, thus keeping the burden on Iran to attack again. On Christmas Eve, Iran struck again big in the south. Karbala Four sent 60,000 Pasdaran across the Shatt al-Arab north and south of Khorramshahr. This time Iraq responded promptly and after 48 hours of furious fighting, threw the Iranians back across the river.

Iran's next big effort followed quickly. It was truly the "mother of all battles" and reflected the worst impulses of Iran's non-army high command by its directness and bloody-mindedness. Before the offensive, Rafsanjani exhorted volunteers heading for the battle:

Our aim is to completely destroy the Iraqi war machine. Here, near Basra, Saddam can not do anything but fight, for the fall of Basra is tantamount to his own death. We want to settle our accounts with Iraq at Basra's gates, which will open and pave the way for the final victory we have promised.

On January 8, 1987, Karbala Five signaled its beginning when waves of Iranians rushed the Iraqi lines northwest of Khorramshahr. As Rafsanjani predicted, the Iraqis stood their ground and fought. Final victory was not, however, the result. In standing to fight, the Iraqis gunned down the Iranians who stubbornly attacked in the face of crippling losses as they slowly shoved the Iraqis back. By January 22, 1987, the Iranians had advanced to within ten kilometers of Basra, the objective on which Iran pinned her hopes of victory. By the fourth week of the offensive, Iran's attack force was spent and the Iranians dug in to hold their exposed positions at the outskirts of Basra. Iraq's counter-attack called upon all the available reserves and smashed the Iranians to end the offensive for good. Perhaps 20,000 Iranians died in the battle. Iraq's casualties were about half of Iran's. Iraq's performance is notable in that Iraq withstood and won the kind of brutal bloodletting that supposedly only Iran could endure. Observers at the time saw only that Iran had launched yet another in a seemingly endless series of big offensives. They speculated about how many more of these attacks Iraq could endure. Actually, Iran broke at Karbala Five. It would be many months before observers began to wonder what was wrong with Iran when no further attacks were begun, yet it was true that the "Islamic Revolution bled to death in Karbala V."

Over a year and a half of fighting remained before the war would end, however, though it did not consist of the human wave assaults of the past. Karbala Six in January, at Qasr-e-Shirin; Karbala Seven, east of Rawandaz in March; and in April, and Karbala Eight east of Basra each failed to budge the swelling ranks of the Iraqi army which by then actually matched the Iranians in the number of soldiers in the field.


The Iranians would not give up though they seemed unwilling to back up bellicose words with action. Despite the drubbing they gave the Iranians during Karbala Five and the meager Iranian efforts that had followed, the Iraqis were nonetheless compelled to man a long front, albeit with greater confidence. Although the pattern of Iraqi defenders facing repeated Iranian land offensives was apparently continuing unabated, the strategic balance was shifting in Iraq's favor. Less visible than the stalemate and the Iranian attacks were Iraq's ground force expansion, the Republican Guard's secret training in the summer of 1987, and Iran's quiet collapse due to the Karbala Five slaughter that killed off the bulk of Iran's experienced and trained Pasdaran. Just as Iran's ground forces lost the will to make the type of "final offensive" that Iran's religious leaders believed was necessary to win the war, Iraq's army had expanded sufficiently for Iraq to take the initiative once again. An additional incentive for Iraq to attack and end the war was the cost of maintaining this larger army which added to Iraq's already crushing external debt.

In the short term, however, the strategic shift went unnoticed and Iran struck near Suleimaniya in the north in early April 1987. This Karbala Nine offensive gnawed away more terrain and provoked a severe Iraqi response in the form of a poison gas-supported counter attack. In late April, Karbala Ten seized small chunks of land in the northern Sar Dasht area and in May and early June, Operation Nasr continued to apply pressure in Iraq's Kurdish region. Iraqi Kurds even aided Iranian Pasdaran who penetrated Iraqi lines and infiltrated 140 kilometers to raid the great prize of the region--Kirkuk.

For Iraq, the bright side of the Kurdish front was that barring a general Kurdish uprising throughout the region, Iraq did not face the prospect of a catastrophic defeat in the north where one failure could mean the loss of the war . On the other hand, the terrain ruled out any real Iraqi capacity to kill large numbers of Iranians to convince Iran of the futility of fighting. It remained a bleeding wound that sapped Iraqi strength. For the remainder of 1987, with the exception of some relatively heavy fighting in the center and south in July (which changed nothing materially), Iran was rather passive. In December, in fact, Iran announced that her policy was now to launch small probes to keep the Iraqi army busy. Like past assertions of a similar nature it still seemed like an interlude between final offensives. Iraq on the other hand was all dressed up with no place to go. The Iraqi army had finally grown to proportions capable of blunting and bloodying large Iranian attacks without worrying unduly that it needed to strip another section of the front yet had none to face.

The most dramatic and visible part of this stage of the war took place in the Gulf and in the strategic arena. This stage was further characterized by the Americanization of the war. The signal event was the Iraqi Exocet attack on the U.S.S. Stark on May 17, 1987 (the Soviet Union too, it should be mentioned, suffered losses in May--the tanker Marshal Chuykov struck a mine and the freighter Ivan Karotyev was hit by the Iranians). The attack was termed an accident by both sides, yet the crippling of an American warship sent America into the Gulf in strength. Washington's decision dragged in a reluctant Western Europe that grudgingly accepted that Iran would not remain quiet in the face of Iraqi provocation. Further incentive to American intervention was Kuwait's overtures to Moscow for help against Iran's campaign against neutral shipping. America scrambled to keep the Gulf an American lake by granting Kuwait's request to reflag Kuwaiti tankers under the Stars and Stripes and took steps to organize the defense of those tankers through the Iranian gauntlet. Iran responded to the development with bluster, claiming to have formed a potent force called "Seekers of Martyrdom in the Persian Gulf." Observers in the West questioned the ability of the United States Navy to handle threats ranging from massive Silkworm missiles and a surge of Iranian aircraft to mines and tiny speedboats manned by fanatics and equipped with rocket propelled grenades or packed with explosives. American training and equipment had focused on a conventional battle with the Soviet fleet in the North Atlantic and not a seaborne guerrilla war after all.

On July 24, 1987, the newly reflagged and heavily guarded tanker Bridgeton struck a mine in the northern Gulf in an apparent vindication of critics who had questioned American intervention. Iranians gloated but refrained from taking credit for the mining. The mishap galvanized the West rather than scare it into retreat. By September 1987, 70 Western warships patrolled the Gulf. Iran was under no delusions as to where the armada's guns were pointed. Despite theoretical neutrality given that the fleet would defend its charges against any attackers, Iran was the only country interested in attacking the tankers of Iraq's de facto Gulf allies.

The first American-Iranian clash took place on September 21, 1987, when American forces discovered Iran Ajr laying mines 128 kilometers northeast of Bahrain. A helicopter strike disabled the ship and allowed U.S. landing teams to capture the vessel. Despite Iranian protests that the ship was carrying food and not mines, America had caught Tehran red handed and scuttled the Iranian ship in deep water.

While Iran's agitation increased at the Western naval presence and as she tried to scare the West away with rhetoric and mines, Iraq did her best to avoid rocking the boat by halting air attacks in the Gulf. Since America was entering the Gulf as a de facto Iraqi ally to calm the Gulf, it would have been imprudent for the primary cause of that unrest--Iraq--to blast away in the early stages of America's deployment. After a six week lull, Iraq resumed air attacks on August 29, 1987, with Iranian retaliation immediately following. In addition, Iraq began striking Iranian civilian and rear area targets virtually unopposed by Iranian air defenses. Attacks against Iran's oil infrastructure were also intensified. Kharg Island was subjected to heavy attacks as were the tankers using the island. Iraq's air reach extended as far as Larak Island in the southern Gulf to strike moored Iranian oil tankers on October 5, 1987.

Iran's response was limited to two attacks on Iraqi civilians in October, including a two-missile strike against Baghdad on October 5, 1987. In addition to striking her enemy of seven years, Iran lashed out at others in October 1987. The frustration of failing to crush Iraq, of witnessing America lead the West into the Gulf in force, of enduring air attacks against her oil lifeline, and of seeing the militarily weak but wealth Arab Gulf states funnel money to prop up Iraq's military pushed Iran to the brink of irrationality. When Iraq was the country that had invaded Iran in the first place back in 1980 this seemed too unjust and proof that the world was against their revolution. On top of this, Iran received no sympathy when, in July, Saudi security forces bloodily suppressed Iranian "pilgrims" after they tried to mobilize a pro-Iranian demonstration in the heart of Saudi Arabia. On October 3, 1987, Iran crossed the line into irrationality. Unable to defeat her one enemy Iraq, Iran massed between 30 and 50 speedboats for an attack on Saudi Arabia's off-shore oil terminal at Khafji--the one used by the Kuwaitis and Saudis to sell oil in Iraq's name. Saudi Arabia responded by deploying warships and fighter aircraft. Iran pulled back but five days later in another confrontation the Saudis sank three speedboats.

Iran, apparently not satisfied with defeat at the hands of Iraq and then Saudi Arabia, even struck an American flagged tanker, Sea Isle City, with a Silkworm missile while it lay in Kuwaiti waters. The United States retaliated with Operation Nimble Archer on October 19, 1987, during which three Iranian oil platform bases were attacked. Many Iranians knew that a course of confrontation with America was foolish but the short term satisfaction of striking out at those who helped Iraq--even the United States--was beginning to win out over reason.

In October, the Iranians claimed to have troops massed for another try at Basra and on November 1, 1987, Rafsanjani stated that no settlement with Iraq was possible until Iran struck a decisive blow. Three days later, Iran declared a week of mobilization and issued demands that Iraq be labeled the aggressor in the war and that Iraq pay reparations. Iran added that she might keep some of the Iraqi land she held at that point. Given the nearly ten months that had passed since the most recent final offensive, these were strong words indeed.

The naval war continued amidst the Western naval presence. On January 15, 1988, Iraqi warplanes struck three more tankers engaged in the Iranian oil trade. Iraq had what she needed now--a naval shield for shipping traffic that supported the Iraqi war effort through neutral Kuwait. From behind that shield Iraqi planes struck Iranian tankers. In addition, another war of the cities began on February 29, 1988. The attacks included an Iraqi missile strike against Tehran, a first for the war.

While Iran continued to insist that ultimately it would be infantry who would decide the war, Iran had already let the usual season pass without launching a major offensive. This failure began to raise questions about what Iran was doing. One answer came in April 1988 when, after fewer than two days of fighting, Iraq recaptured the Fao peninsula with Operation Ramadan. Iraqi regular troops and Republican Guard forces backed by 2,000 tanks and 600 heavy guns plowed south and struck from the Gulf with a supporting amphibious assault. The Iranians were overwhelmed and showed no spirit of resistance. While it is true that the Iraqis outnumbered the Iranians by 8 to 1 odds, the contrast is amazing between April 1988 and February 1986, when Iranians fought hammer and tong for every square inch of worthless swamp on that peninsula. The day that Iranian infantry could not exact a heavy price for the terrain on which they stood was the day that Iran lost the war. April 18, 1988 was that day.

At the same time that Iran was losing on the ground, Iran's navy sailed on its death ride. The naval battle was prompted by the mining of U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts on April 14, 1988 in the first mine incident since November 1987. Five days later, America responded with Operation Praying Mantis. Designed as a proportional response to the damaged U.S. frigate, the operation involved the destruction of two Iranian oil platform bases. The Sassan platform was demolished by a Marine landing team while the Sirri platform was destroyed by naval gunfire. During this operation, an Iranian patrol boat was sunk and F-4 Phantom fighter bombers were driven off by American surface to air missile fire. Iran's response set off a chain of events that left perhaps three of her patrol boats at the bottom of the Gulf and two modern frigates smashed. American forces dodged more Iranian attacks including the impressive evasion of five Silkworms by Jack Williams. The Only American loss, a Sea Cobra attack helicopter, was lost by accident and not hostile action. The final insult to Iran took place on April 26, 1988, when the cautious Saudis broke diplomatic relations with Iran.


The April disasters failed to teach anybody, least of all the Iranians, that Iran was in danger of losing the war if it went on much longer. One Iranian commentator's observation after Operation Ramadan well reflected this blindness:

This first great Iraqi victory in years, which will boost Iraqi morale, is bad news as it will prolong the war even more... it will make Khomeini and the Iranians even more determined to win the war at any cost.

Iraq emphatically asserted her enhanced naval position (thanks to the United States Navy) by stretching her aerial reach all the way to Larak Island in the southern Gulf on May 14, 1988. Iraqi air power also struck at will behind the Iranian front to seriously interdict Iranian troop movement.

Iraqi ground troops exploited their new superiority (and demonstrated their utter confidence) by draining the Fish Lake "moat" that had been created over the years at great cost to protect Basra from Iranian attacks. The Iraqis attacked on May 25, 1988, and captured the forward Iranian position at the Shalamcheh bridgehead on the west bank of the Shatt al-Arab forcing the Iranians back into Iran.

The Ayatollah Khomeini refused to adapt to the new reality of Iranian vulnerability, asserting:

The combatants must continue their fight by depending on their faith in Allah and their weapons. The outcome of this war will be decided on the battlefield, not through negotiations.

Just as Khomeini had vowed, the course of the war was determined on the battlefield. Iran's attempt to be the ones who would call the shots took place on June 13, 1988, when her troops counter attacked at Shalamcheh. The failure paved the way for Iraq to pile on the pressure. On June 19, 1988, a combined force of Iraqis and anti-Khomeini Iranian rebels captured Mehran and six days later, aided by a parachute drop of brigade size, the Iraqis drove the Iranians out of the oil-rich Majnoon Island area. Poison gas used by the Iraqis contributed to the Iranian defeat. Victory in the Musian region next allowed the Iraqis to capture Dehloran in Iran on July 12, 1988. Staying only until the 16th, the Iraqis pulled back without any Iranian pressure. The next day, Saddam Hussein called for an end to the war.

Iran's only hope for combat success remained in the north. Even as Iraqi forces bested the Iranians on the ground in the center and south and as Iraqi warplanes struck throughout Iran and the Gulf, Iranian troops aided by Iraqi Kurds continued to defeat the Iraqis in the north. Operation Zafar Seven, in mid-March southeast of Sulaymaniyah, smashed the Iraqi defenders who stubbornly held their frontline positions in compliance with Hussein's orders to hold even the most exposed positions. The Iraqi counter attack fell victim to Iranian ambushes, leaving the Iranians closer to Iraq's Darbandikhan reservoir. It was during this operation that the Kurds of the village of Halabja were hit with poison gas. Although Iraq was and continues to be widely blamed for the attack, evidence indicates that Iran was the more likely culprit. Given Iraq's free ride on past gas attacks against Iran and the cruel policy toward the Kurds generally, it is difficult to rouse much sympathy for this incorrectly leveled charge. On May 17, 1988, an Iranian attack near Sulaymaniyah failed.

Despite Iraq's repeated small losses in Kurdistan, her victories on the rest of the front were coming at such a rapid pace that Iran was near collapse. In the atmosphere of this pending disaster (increasingly apparent even to Iran's leaders), a tragedy in the Gulf weighed in with possibly decisive consequences on the mind of the Ayatollah Khomeini. On July 3, 1988, in the midst of a confusing clash with Iranian forces in the congested Strait of Hormuz, the American cruiser Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian Airbus 300 that entered the combat area. All 290 aboard were killed. Khomeini tried to use this incident to whip up renewed anger against Iraq, but the Iranian ground forces were too far gone to rise to the challenge. The combination of Iraqi battlefield dominance and Tehran's perception that America was willing to stop at nothing to crush Iran led the Ayatollah Khomeini to accept U. N. Resolution No. 598, which called for an end to the war. On July 16, 1988, Iran formally accepted the resolution.

Iraq, however, was emboldened by her success after long years of absorbing Iran's brutal body blows. Instead of accepting Iran's offer to end the war, Iraq launched attacks all along the front from July 22-24, 1988. One attack penetrated to within 25 kilometers of Ahvaz across terrain that Iraqis had not set foot on since the early part of the war. Iraqi troops also plunged into Iran further north to open the way for the dissident Iranian National Liberation Army (NLA) to enter Iran. By July 26, 1988, NLA forces were battling the Iranians for Kermanshah--65 kilometers inside Iran. Iraq's July offensives also grabbed Qasr-e-Shirin and Sar-e Zahad in the north. Yet Iran still had a spark of resistance left, and at Kermanshah and in front of Ahvaz, rallied to hold. On August 6, 1988, Saddam Hussein agreed to end the war. Although Iran's Rafsanjani vowed that Iran would rebuild her military with the option of renewing the war, when the cease-fire began the next day the First Gulf War between Iran and Iraq ended. For Iraq's Kurds, the end of the war simply meant that Iranian support had ended with the consequence that Iraq turned her attention to crushing them.


With at least 100,000 and as many as 300,000 Iraqis dead as a result of this war and Iranian casualties estimated at twice that of Iraq, close to a million people may have died in a war fought in a vital portion of the globe. For the most part, the world ignored the war as long as it seemed confined to the combatants. The war is little known today and even before Desert Storm, the Second Gulf War, few people cared or thought it significant that modern weapons and mediaeval courage were vying on the battlefield for dominance. Desert Storm with its high-tech precision and rapidity demonstrated how well a war can go if you field a well trained and superbly equipped military in terrain suited to your force and against an enemy that fights as you expect them to fight. Since then even fewer are interested in this nightmare of a contest that showed war in all its horror and desperation. Even as the computer revolution was taking hold in the West during the 1980s, soldiers fought and died as they have for centuries in close combat. We are deluded if we believe that we can get away with "fighting" far from the battlefield in air-conditioned comfort in front of computer screens. War is, to risk a clique, hell.

The war as a whole showed us that modern war is not inherently brief. Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakistani wars since World War II have misled us into thinking this is the norm. Desert Storm has seemingly confirmed this view and America now seeks a small but lethal Army that will strike hard, win fast, and come home. Yet by fighting on for years when most believed the First Gulf War would have to end rapidly, the Iraqis and Iranians have provided us with a much needed lesson that wars do not just end on their own. By simply pausing instead of furiously fighting Lemming-like until all weapons and ammunition are expended, these two states fought for nearly eight years. This war is also yet another reminder that wars, even when successful, can create further problems. Just as World War I defeated the Kaiser's Germany but led to Nazi Germany; and as the defeat of Hitler's Germany brought a powerful Soviet Union into central Europe and began a long Cold War, the First Gulf War bloodied a revolutionary Iran that posed a threat to the Gulf's conservative governments but created a powerful Iraq with the force to advance its power through military means. Security is something that must be preserved on an ongoing basis even when the biggest threats are defeated in battle. You never know when the next one will arise or from where.

Finally, the war is a sobering reminder that wars do not usually go according to plan. Whether one looks at Iraq's assumptions about a quick war in 1980 or Iran's belief from 1982 onward that Iraq would crumble if pushed hard enough, it is easy to see that war has a life of its own and can spiral out of our comprehension when we decide that war will advance our interests. Our precise assumptions about the minimum force we will need to win in the future must be questioned since the type of enemy we may face cannot be chosen ahead of time. Even if we know what our enemy will look like on day one of a war, we could be wrong. Or it could change as months or years pass. While not an argument for a 1945-size American Army capable of beating anybody (and simultaneously crushing our economy) the First Gulf War should warn us against assuming victory is ours for the asking. Decreases in the size, training, modernization, and morale of our military, especially the Army, matter a great deal even in a time of peace. The performance of Iraq and Iran in the First Gulf War shows that even smaller countries are capable of enduring and inflicting casualties whether they deploy well armed and supported soldiers as did Iraq or motivated masses of light infantry as did Iran. These two combatants represent the more likely kinds of opponents we may face rather than mirror images of our current military or the advanced military now being discussed and built. As Iran and Iraq showed in the 1980s, even these types of armies can be tenacious. We will need to work hard now in peacetime if we wish to beat such enemies in war. Even then it will be a challenge.

Brian J. Dunn. Copyright 1998

AUTHOR's NOTE: Since preparing this in 1998, further reading has led me to believe that Iraq was indeed most likely responsible for the Halabja gas attack. May 6, 2003.