Egyptian Field Marshal Abdul-Halim Abu Ghazalah on the Combat Tactics and Strategy of the Iran-Iraq War
Editor's Note: The authors wish to thank the John T. Hughes Library in Washington DC for making this volume available for study. Finally, CDR Aboul-Enein wishes to thank Mr. Gary Greco of the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism for his encouragement and discussions that enhanced this work.
Part one of this three part essay focused on the buildup prior to the onset of hostilities during the Iran-Iraq War as described by Field Marshal Abu Ghazalah in his prominent 1993 volume in Arabic entitled, “Al-Ḥarb al-Irāqīyah al-Īrānīyah, 1980-1988.” The title of Abu Ghazalah’s book translates into English as The Iran-Iraq War 1980 to 1988. This second part of the series will focus on the distinct phases of the war between August 1980 to July 1982. Ghazalah divided this period into five phases, which will be outlined in detail.
Phase I (August to November 1980), D+1: One Iraqi infantry division crossed into the Iranian border and secured the line of Zeinquwa, al-Sukra, and Bir Ali in Iran’s Bakhlian Region.
D+2 (17 August 1980): Iraqi air forces pounded the cities of Khoramshahr, Qasr-Shireen, Mehran, Ahvaz, Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Shiraz. However, the air strikes were not successful, as the Iraqis spread their air forces too thin, and the air raids were not coordinated with the advancing Iraqi ground units. Although the air raids mirrored the 1967 Six-Day War in concept, they utterly failed in competence, equipment, and capability. Iranian confusion over the Iraqi air raids added to the chaos and enabled four Iraqi divisions, reinforced by a Special Forces regiment, to advance in the southern sector (one infantry, one mechanized infantry, and two armored). The second day (D+2) also saw initial activity in the central sector with one mechanized division, and in the northern sector with the advance of one armored division. Despite recurring logistical problems, a failed air assault, and equipment failures, Iraqi forces made the following gains in the first week of the war:
- Samar and Qasr Shireen in the North.
- Mehran and Gilan in the center.
- Samangard and Khoramshahr (after a two day siege) in the South.
Iraq was unable to achieve the main objective of securing Khuzestan and Abadan during this initial strike, while the Iraqis attempted to replicate the Israeli 1967 combined air and land strike, they miscalculated distances, resilience of Iranians, and the inability of Iraq to sustain air and ground forces as well as a failure to concentrate Iraqi air and ground forces at decisive Iranians points. Iranian reinforcement units from the sea were able to save Abadan. Had the Iranians not organized this quick waterborne reinforcement, Abadan could have fallen, or at the very least been subject to severe damage. Abadan was an Iranian crown jewel, as its oil refineries and major oil fields comprised Iran’s oldest oil holdings. Nonetheless, Iraq’s gains amounted to an 800-kilometer line from Khoramshar in the south to Qasr Shireen in the north. The depth of gains ranged between 20 to 60 kilometers of Iranian territory along the 800-kilometer north-south axis.
Field Marshal Abu Ghazalah Criticizes Iraq’s Initial Plans
The former Egyptian Defense Minister believed that the Iraqis suffered from very poor planning and a profound lack of understanding of the terrain. They achieved the 800-kilometer line 20-60 kilometers inside Iran with no concentrated effort towards achieving a breakthrough. The Iraqis failed attempt to capture Abadan was attributed to a lack of coordination between commander, infantry and artillery. The Iraqi General Staff, knowing Abadan was a port town, did not anticipate naval reinforcements, and did not consider implementing a blockade with their coastal patrol craft. In terms of the failed artillery coordination, Abu Ghazalah cites an excellent example of artillery saturation fire in the north that would have been better suited to the Iranian defensive troop concentrations in the south. The Iraqi obsession with capturing cities, towns and villages led to massive casualties due to urban fighting. Iraqi armed forces were unable to exploit breakthrough operations following the main effort because of their lack of knowledge and initiative regarding the terrain. Maneuver warfare was a concept alien in practice to the Iraqi General Staff, who employed tanks in mountainous terrain as immobile artillery pieces.
The initial air assault was abysmal due to lack of Iraqi pilot training and attacking only from high altitudes. There was no combined arms operations, no plan to attack Iranian troop concentrations, and no forces were staged to intercept an Iranian surprise reinforcement of Abadan from the sea. Iraq enjoyed superiority in aircraft, but no thought was given to use this arm to isolate Iranian logistical lines, or to prevent the reinforcement of Abadan. The focus among Iraqi air planners was to replicate the successful air raids of the 1967 Six-Day War, and focus on airfields, aircraft and air defenses, as the Israelis had done against Egypt, Syria and Jordan with overwhelming success. However, the raids were not nearly as successful as they were in 1967. As the war progressed, Iran would begin to successfully mount deep air strikes into Iraq when they could garner the ability to sortie aircraft.
After the initial attack Iraqi units became complacent and failed to prepare for the possibility of an Iranian counter-attack. Some Iraqi units stopped after the initial attack and did not set up in terrain advantageous to repelling a counter-attack. Soldiers did not question NCOs, and NCOs did not question junior officers, and junior officers did not question senior officers. Had someone simply put forth the idea of preparing for a counter-attack, the Iraqi units would have been far better prepared and able to defend themselves more efficiently.
Abu Ghazalah’s Analysis of Iranian Tactical Weakness in the Opening Phase of the War
The initial Iranian response to Iraq’s offensive attack was slow and ineffective. One early tactical blunder was the use of Shiite Peoples Brigades, a formation of irregular mass infantry formations like the Basij. They were uncontrollable in battle and their inexperience and tendency to panic while attached to more disciplined Iraqi formations caused the collapse and surrender of several border cities to Iraq. The reason why Iraqi forces did not penetrate deeper into Iranian territory was due to Iraqi combat idiosyncrasies and the dispatch of IRCG units, who, although they had no combat experience, were better armed and possessed sheer revolutionary and Islamist radical zeal. Iranians finally deployed American made cobra gunships to effectively halt Iraqi advances. Only days before the battle, the Iranians had placed the gunships in storage due to a lack of maintenance and the requisite technical knowledge to keep them operational, but in desperation were able to field the cobra gunships. This first phase of the war ended in November 1980 in a static defense reminiscent of World War I trench warfare, but with late 20th century weaponry.
Phase II (November 1980 to late August 1981): This phase is best described as a battle of attrition, with the chief means of combat being exchanges of artillery, surface to air missiles and air strikes. Iraqis retained their gains and attempted to break the deadlock with an airborne operation in the Zagros Mountains in December 1980. The Iraqi divisions inched forward to occupy the Al-Shosh area. Other Iraqi Special Forces operations included a raid on Dehloran in the central sector. These were only harassment raids and made no real tactical gains.
Saddam Hussein and his General Staff wanted Khomeini to seek a peace treaty while they still retained Iranian territory. The Iraqis failed to understand the depth of Islamist Revolutionary zeal, and the unifying power Iraq’s invasion would have on the Iranian public. The Iraqis escalated, firing SCUD-missiles on the cities of Dezful and Ahvaz, as terror weapons to bring the war to the Iranian public. The Iraqis lost control of Khoramshahr, and the 38th Infantry Division was deployed to recapture the city and to break the siege of Abadan. The Iraqis dug deep into a defensive holding position during the Abadan operation without attempting to exploit Iranian weaknesses. However, the Iraqis did not pay attention to the sea, and it made no sense to seal the city without blockading the seaward approach which provided the Iranians a method of keeping their defensive positions re-supplied.
The style of tactics used in the first year of the war included the staging of division level formations in Susangard and Ahvaz in mid-January 1981. Tactics also consisted of commanders pointing battalions towards the captured Iranian cities and the Iraqi border, and ordering them to simply advance. It is worth noting that such tactics were not seen since the carnage of World War I, where troops marched into the jaws of machine gun fire. Kenneth M. Pollack, in his volume titled Arabs at War, indicates that the success of these “mobilization battalions” during a battle close to the city of Qasr-e Shirin “convinced the mullahs in Tehran that large-scale infantry assaults relying on the Islamic fervor of the Revolutionary guards and the Basij were their ace in the hole”.
Abu Ghazalah notes in his book that he was astonished to learn that the Iraqis did not regroup their armored divisions for an offensive, and instead simply entrenched and reacted to Iranian attacks. The Iraqis failed to comprehend and apply the lessons learned following each Iranian attack, while the Iranians began to gradually close their learning curve in combat tactics, giving them a piecemeal advantage. Iraqi artillery was spread across the 800-kilometer front instead of being redeployed and concentrated in sectors where it could have supported armored and infantry assaults.
Phase II was also characterized by periods of static defense, and the Iranians used this time to re-organize their armed forces by increasing its killing capability, boosting morale, and integrating IRGC formations within regular army units. The IRGC, much different than the force it is today, was a post-revolution phenomenon bursting with revolutionary zeal and serving as the political commissar within regular units. In an attempt to “depoliticize” the officer ranks, hundreds of officers from the Shah’s old armed forces were released from prison and restored to their original ranks. Khomeini used the war to consolidate his hold on power and to create the rule of supreme jurisprudent (Velayet al-Faqih) within Iran. The Iranians went into exploring ways to desperately import weapons, spare parts, ammo, and other military materiel. Finally, the Iranians began planning for assaults all along the front. This set the stage for what Abu Ghazalah calls Phase III of the conflict.
Phase III (August 1981 to March 1982): The Iranians go on the offensive. There were limited Iranian attacks in the Northern Sector prior to the start of phase III that penetrated the Nusood area and reached a depth of approximately 6 kilometers; the Iraqis regained the territory two days later on 4 January 1981. These limited attacks were conducted in preparation for a massive attack planned for November 1981, with one armor division, one infantry division, and 10,000 IRGC forces in the Soma Region (Central Sector). The Iranians succeeded in re-occupying the city of Bostan and its surrounding villages during the offensive. The Iraqis responded by repelling the attack with the forces on hand; there was no thought to utilizing reserves despite their availability in Baghdad and near the Jordanian-Syrian border.
In the Southern Sector, the Iranians employed the same size force against the Iraqis with one armored division, one infantry division and 10,000 IRCG forces. This attack broke the landward siege of Abadan and forced Iraqi units to retreat to the west bank of the Qarun River, where they eventually regrouped in Khoramshahr. This mix of forces seemed to provide the Iranians with a feeling of confidence. An additional 60,000 IRGC were infused into the regular forces, where they experimented with, and perfected night operations. Iranians began to appreciate the terrain and saw the utility of concentrating artillery fire to suppress Iraqi units, yet both sides still had not perfected combining artillery with an armored and mechanized infantry advance. Assaults would begin with suppressive fire, and then cease, to allow the assault to go forward.
Iranian air forces were only capable of performing 30-40 sorties per day, a negligible amount given the size of Iraq. Iran stiffened its anti-air (AA) defenses, and purchased much-needed SAM-missile batteries from Syria. The newly acquired AA assets were used in the capital, Tehran. In the first two years of the war, Iran acquired AA assets from the Soviets, North Korea and Libya. However, the AA defenses, such as Libyan SAM-6 units, did not equal the sophisticated early air war system possessed by the Iraqis and supplied by the French.
While the Iranians analyzed, adjusted and re-positioned their forces, the Iraqi General Staff kept their initial front line units deployed and gave little thought to fatigue. Iraq did nothing to refresh front-line units or re-organize defenses during the first several months of phase III, which was a period of high attrition. It never set up layered kill zones or defenses in depth, and reserves were never decisively deployed to counter Iranian assaults. Iraqi armor was used as immobile artillery. This sort of tactical error negated the advantage Iraq enjoyed in tanks. Unlike the Iranians, who began to concentrate their artillery, the Iraqis still spread their artillery sporadically along the 800-kilometer front. Had the Iraqis concentrated their artillery, it could have helped to prevent the Iranian recapture of Abadan. Iran was able to adapt and evolve throughout the war, giving them the advantage over a complacent Iraqi strategy.
Phase IV (March to late May 1982): Abu Ghazalah described this phase within the context of three massive Iranian offensives: Fatima al-Zahra (named after Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and mother of Hussein), Fath (Conquest) and Beit al-Muqadas (Holy House, a reference to the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia).
The Iranians began operations Fatima al-Zahra and Fath on 22 March 1982. One infantry division augmented by IRGC conducted the Fatima al-Zahra operation in the Central Front (the Shosh Area) as a diversionary assault. Operation Fath was the intended primary assault. It was conducted in the vicinity of Dezful and al-Shosh, and was supported by two divisions (infantry and armor). The divisions were augmented with Special Forces, ranger regiments and 20,000 IRGC forces. Iranian forces succeeded in regaining a swath of Iraqi controlled Iranian territory 100 kilometers wide by 20 kilometers deep. This led to the retreat and redeployment of the 4th Iraqi Infantry Corps closer to the Iraq-Iran border.
Operation Beit al-Muqadas was an attempt by the Iranian General Staff to capitalize on the momentum of Operation Fath and to open a second front in the Northern Sector. Iran’s objective was to attack from Ahvaz to Khoramshahr using one infantry and one armored division, augmented by IRGC and paratroopers as the main assault force. Another assault force of one infantry division augmented by IRGC conducted a flanking maneuver by crossing the Qarun River and driving to Khoramshahr from the north. A secondary force of one armored division augmented by the IRGC was also formed to disrupt Iraqi reserves supporting main Iraqi units defending Khoramshahr. The secondary force would conduct an assault on Iraqi-occupied Susangard. The Iraqis did not wait for the attack and for the first time, in what would be a skill Iraq gradually developed over the course of the war, destroyed Iranian pontoon bridges on the Qarun River through concentrated artillery and air assaults, which effectively isolated one of the secondary pincers from the main force.
The year 1982 saw the peak of Iranian human wave assaults. Iranian success in mass assaults at night led to a May 1982 Iraqi withdrawal from Khoramshah after the Iranians had successfully retaken Mehran, Susangard, Somar and Qasr Shireen. Saddam asked for a truce and agreed to withdraw from Iranian territory within 10 days. Iran refused to accept the truce offer, and instead demanded a regime change through the ouster of Saddam. Iran also demanded:
- $150B in reparations;
- Repatriation of Iraqi Shiite refugees in Iran back to their homes in Iraq;
- Return of all Iranian POWs; and
- Granting Iran the right of overland and over flight access to conduct operations in Lebanon.
English sources, such as the Library of Congress Country Study on Iran, indicate that Iran’s decision to invade Iraq initiated the second phase of the conflict (not to be confused with Abu Ghazalah’s description of the period up to July of 1982). It was also a “fateful decision” in that the Iranians decided to go on the offensive in 1982 rather than except the truce offer.
Phase V Iranians go on the Offensive (Mid-July 1982 to October 1982): Abu Ghazalah writes that there was an initial lull in the fighting during this phase, which Iran used to regroup, reform and improve upon military administration and logistics. Iran began plans to conduct heavy offensives into Iraqi territory. The Iranians experimented with waterborne crossings and redirected forces for an attempt to capture all, or part, of the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Basra was the second most populous Iraqi city and the provincial capital of southern Iraq, containing a sizable Shiite majority, and a prime Iranian objective. The plan to capture Basra was known as Operation Blessed Ramadan. Capturing Basra meant effectively isolating Iraq from the Persian Gulf States and threatening Iraq’s southern oil fields.
Operation Ramadan commenced on the evening of 13 July 1982, at 2215 hours. The Iranians deployed an initial strike force of one infantry division, two armored divisions and 30,000 IRGC troops who fought until 1000 the next day and advanced 15 kilometers into Basra’s suburbs. Iraqis countered with an infantry division, reinforced by an armored brigade, made more potent with the deployment of attack helicopters and pushed the Iranian force back 10 kilometers, leaving the net territorial gain for the Iranians at only 5 kilometers, amidst tremendous casualties.
Surprisingly, the Iranians waited until nightfall of the same day to bring forward reserves comprised of an armored division, two infantry divisions and 10,000 IRGC troops. The Iraqis used armored assets and attack helicopters to blunt the night attack. One week later, on the evening of 21 July, the Iranians once again brought forward a force of one armored and two infantry divisions with 10,000 IRGC to attack Basra around the area of Fish Lake. This force was augmented within 24 hours by an Iranian infantry division and 10,000 more IRGC troops.
On 28 July, the Iranians attempted the same attack as on 13 July, using the same avenues of approach with one infantry and two armored divisions and 10,000 IRGC. The Iraqis led the Iranian forces into an envelopment of well-prepared artillery and armored kill zones that encircled Basra. Iran’s obsession with advancing from 5 to 10 kilometers further into Basra’s suburbs blinded them to the elaborate traps laid by the Iraqis, along with the Iraqis’ effective use of helicopter gunships.
Abu Ghazalah notes that the Iranian offensives on Basra were merely uncoordinated wave assaults with IRGC, who either walked or were driven to the front for slaughter. Although superior technology relative to the Iranians helped the Iraqis, their ability to blunt a night assault was significant since Iraq still did not possess enough night vision goggles (NVGs). Had the Iraqis had NVG capability in their armored divisions, they could have more rapidly decimated the Iranian human wave assaults.
The Iraqis detected an Iranian pattern of attack that consisted of IRGC probes and skirmishes intended to reveal weak spots for the Iranian regular units to exploit. A hidden weapon for the Iraqis was their combat engineers, who quickly planned and laid an elaborate and effective barrier of mines, barbed wire, kill zones, ditches, trenches, and anti-tank ditches accompanied by anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the defense of Basra.
The Iranians devised Operation Muslim ibn Aqeel as a result of Iran’s bloody experience during Operation Blessed Ramadan. Abu Ghazalah writes with great outrage that the Iraqis allowed the Iranians to regroup and conduct preparations for what was obviously another offensive without so much as disrupting them with air, armor or even artillery. Operation Muslim ibn Aqeel commenced on 1 October 1982, to occupy strategic hills that would cut off Basra’s road to Abadan. A force of one armored and one infantry division was assembled and reinforced with 20,000 IRGC skirmishers. The attack began at 0100, using Samar as a base and attacking the Iraqi village of Mandlee. This simple assault became an ebb and flow of Iranian attack and Iraqi counter-attack, employing the same tactics repeatedly as continued attrition decreased the number of forces available for each subsequent attack. Incredibly the Iraqis never learned the important lessons of denying the ability for the Iranians to regroup, and the Iranians never learned that the frontal assault was no longer effective.
This concludes the second of three essays on Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazalah’s account of the Iran-Iraq war. The third and final essay will chronicle Ghazalah’s views beginning with the “Dawn of Victory” campaigns and finally reaching the war’s end in 1988.