Small Wars Journal

The “Dawn of Victory” campaigns to the “Final Push”: Part Three of Three

Tue, 04/24/2012 - 5:40am

Editor's Note: You can find Part I here and Part II here.

This is the final segment of a three part series highlighting Field Marshal Abu Ghazalah’s authoritative 1993 book titled, “Al-Ḥarb al-Irāqīyah al-Īrānīyah, 1980-1988,” which translates into English as The Iran-Iraq War 1980 to 1988.   It begins with the 1983 series of campaigns to the final and unsuccessful push by Iranian forces in 1987.  

The Operation Fajr al-Nasr (Dawn of Victory) series saw an Iranian shift of focus from the southern to the central and northern sectors.  One armored division proceeded to Somar in the central zone as a diversion to mask seven reserve infantry divisions that went from the southern sector to the central city of Dezful.  The Iraqis knew about this concentration of forces and knew that an inevitable mass assault would occur in the central zone, yet did nothing to disrupt what would be Operation Fajr al-Nasr, which began in February 1983.  The Iraqis were wrong not to disrupt Iranian troop movements, for the central zone city of Dezful would be a staging area for coordinated assaults in the North, Central and Southern Zones.  This was Iran’s long awaited plan to take the war inside Iraq on a grand scale.  The Iranians wanted to penetrate al-Shabeeb and al-Amarah, and to reach the highways linking the north to Baghdad.  In the south, a massive Iranian force of two infantry and two armored divisions, three border guard regiments, an airborne regiment, a Basij division, and two artillery battalions attempted to isolate Basra from the rest of Iraq. 

Facing the Iranians was the Iraqi 4th Corps, which was made up of two infantry divisions, one mechanized division, and two armored divisions.  The al-Shabeeb assault was stalled by 60 kilometers of hilly escarpments, forests and river torrents blanketing the way to al-Amarah.  Once the Iranians finally arrived near al-Amarah, Iraqi air force fighters thwarted Iranian close air support, but the Iraqi counter-attack was also hindered and the various attacks and counter-attacks regressed into entrenchment and artillery duels.  The Iranians dug themselves in along the entire front of the assault, from north to south, and although Iraq countered the al-Shabeeb assault, it did not result in Iraq’s tactical advantage as these thousands of entrenched Iranian forces now concentrated artillery on Basra, Khanjein, and Mandlee.

The Iranians suffered tremendous casualties clearing minefields and breaching Iraqi anti-tank mines surrounding Basra, which Iraqi engineers were unable to replace.  Desperate, Iraq deployed its navy as a diversion and destroyed Iranian patrol craft in the Iranian port of Khor-Musa.  The Iraqi Air Force was also effectively deployed, with fixed wing fighters massing fires on Iranian formations in the southern sector. 

The vicious cycle of Iranian wave assaults continued after February 1983, but not to the level of Operation Fajr al-Nasr, or of the massive Iranian assaults of 1982.  At this stage Iraqi weapon imports were three times higher than those of Iran, and Baghdad fielded an upgraded Soviet T-72 tank.  Iraq’s most important acquisition during this period was the French Dassault F-1 Mirage fighter, equipped with the Exocet air-to-surface missiles and air-to-air missiles.  Iraq also acquired French Aerospatiale Super Frelon attack helicopters, enabling it to far surpass the Iranian Soviet fighters.  This air capability enabled Iraq to initiate the infamous tanker wars.         

The Iraqis sought to neutralize Iranian human wave attacks by launching 64 FROG surface-to- surface missiles on Dezful and Ahvaz--primary staging areas for the Iranian offensives in the southern and central sectors.  A series of SCUD-B launches on Dezful followed, but were ineffective, as the SCUD-B proved highly inaccurate.  In January 1983, sensing the Iranians were poised to conduct another mass offensive, the Iraqis launched 66 air sorties on Iran, and all 66 sorties also proved ineffective.  Iraqi bombers were not provided fighter escorts, the maintenance of the Iraqi air fleet was appalling, and some of the deep strike missions exceeded the range of the aircraft. 

By this stage of the war, the Iranian air force had lost 80 warplanes, while the Iraqi air force had lost 55 warplanes; some of the losses were due to poor maintenance and pilots inexperienced at navigating to target. To replace these losses Iraq, beginning in 1983, acquired over 300 fixed wing warplanes to include:

  • 09 TU-2
  • 08 Illyushin bombers 
  • 70 Sukhoi-7, 17 and 20 fighter-bombers
  • 12 British Hunter-Hawkers
  • 14 MIG-25 fighters
  • 40 MIG-19 fighters
  • 70 MIG-21 fighters
  • 30 French Mirage F-1 fighters

The above list shows the impact access to arms and credit, as well as grants from Arab Gulf States, had in resupplying Iraq with quantity and quality arms compared to Iran.  Of the 400 operational military aircraft Iran possessed under the Shah until the 1979 revolution, only 70 remained operational by 1983.  Due to lack of access to arms, funding, and replacement parts, to name a few, Iranian tactics were limited to mass offensives, including those known as the Fee Fajr (At Dawn) offensives. 

Operation Fee Fajr 1:  In early February of 1983, 50,000 Iranian forces attacked westward from Dezful, and were confronted by 55,000 Iraqi forces.  The Iranian objective was to cut off the road from Basra to Baghdad in the central sector.  The Iranians conducted the attack on a rainy day and had hoped cloud cover would shield them from Iraqi air attacks.   Once the clouds lifted, Iraq conducted 150 sorties, which generated a 3 to 1 kill ratio of Iranians to Iraqis.  The Iraqis, sensing the efficacy of close air attacks, directed aerial assaults on Dezful, Ahvaz and Khoramshahr in retribution for the Iranian Fee Fajr 1 offensive.  The Iranians had the temerity to order up more forces, and the Iranian 92nd Division pushed forward from Dezful to route one Iraqi armored division and destroy another.  

Operation Fee Fajr 2:  The Iranian’s directed insurgency operations by proxy against the Iraqis in April 1983 by inciting the Kurds in the north.  This operation is significant, as the decision by Iraq to conduct indiscriminate chemical attacks against the Kurds occurred during this operation.  In addition, Turkish forces massed on the border to protect the Turkish-Iraqi pipeline, and to contain the Kurds.  These events nearly drew Turkey, a NATO ally, into the conflict. 

Operation Fee Fajr 3:  The Iranians attempted to further exploit activities in the north in July of 1983.  Iran saw an opportunity to sweep away Iraqi forces controlling the roads between the Iranian controlled mountain border towns of Mehran, Dehloran and Elam.  Iraq conducted airstrikes against 50,000 Iranian forces lodged in mountainous terrain.  This proved extremely complex for Iraqi pilots and Iraqi forces subsequently exhausted themselves attempting to dislodge the Iranian force.  Realizing they needed to alter their tactics, Iraq equipped attack helicopters with chemical warheads, which also proved ineffective, but demonstrated the Iraqi General Staff and Saddam’s penchant for using chemical weapons.  The end result was 17,000 killed on both sides with no gain. 

Operation Fee Fajr 4:  The focus of the fourth Fee Fajr operation in September of 1983 was the northern sector in Iranian Kurdistan.  Three Iranian regular divisions, IRGC and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) elements amassed in Marevan and Sardahst in a move to threaten Suleimaniyah.  Iran’s strategy was to press Kurdish tribes to occupy the Banjuin Valley, which was within 45 kilometers of the major Iraqi northern city of Suleimaniyah and 140 kilometers from the oilfields of Kirkuk.  To stem the tide, Iraq deployed Mi-8 attack helicopters equipped with chemical weapons, and executed 120 sorties against the Iranian force, which stopped them 15 kilometers into Iraqi territory.  The kill rate was 5,000 Iranians to 2,500 Iraqis.  Baghdad could ill afford a 1:2 kill ratio.  In addition, Iran gained 110 square kilometers of its territory back in the north and added 15 square kilometers of Iraqi land.  Iraq abandoned large quantities of valuable weapons and war materiel in the field, and Iran captured 1,800 Iraqi POWs.  Iraq responded to these losses by once again firing a series of SCUD-B missiles into Dezful, Masjid Suleiman, and Behbehaan, while the Iraqi navy mined the port of Bandar Khomeini.  Of note in Operation Fee Fajr 4 was Iran’s use of artillery against Basra while the battles in the north raged.  Iran began to conduct attacks on multiple fronts to confuse and wear down the Iraqis.   

Before 1983 closed, the Iranians began to entertain the option of abandoning human wave attacks on defended Iraqi positions. Iran considered splitting the mass formations of human wave attacks into smaller units to insert behind Iraqi lines.  However, these Iranian harassing units were unable to create a breach for a main Iranian assault force to exploit, due to an almost complete absence of command and control.  Even if they had, the reaction time of the main Iranian assault force was so slow that they still likely could not have exploited a breach. This inability to react allowed the Iraqis to conduct air strikes and annihilate the Iranian assault force.  However, Iraq could never envelope the Iranians and considered their mission accomplished once the Iranians had retreated.  Iran possessed only a third of what was required to equip 600,000 regular troops.  For instance, this force had only 1,000 armored personnel carriers (APC) and 340 Soviet and North Korean tanks to support it.  Compare this to 575,000 Iraqi troops supported by 3,000 APCs and 2,500 tanks.  Iraq also possessed HOT and Milan anti-tank missiles and excellent combat engineers. 

In late 1983, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered clerics not to interfere with military affairs and combat operations in the front.  However, this order came too late as the IRGC and clergy eviscerated the Iranian General Staff, removing pragmatic generals who wanted to set aside religious wishful thinking, and instead focus on the strategic and tactical problems of the war. 

Escalating New Developments at the Close of 1983

After the Fee Fajr series of operations, Iraq decided to widen the war by attacking oil tankers originating from and bound for Iran.  Iraq hoped these attacks would choke Iran’s oil revenue, which was what was feeding the Iranian war effort.  Meanwhile, Iraq expanded and developed oil pipelines:  Iraq to Turkey, Iraq to Saudi Arabia, Iraq to Amman as well as to Aqaba, were all being explored, and in the case of Iraq to Turkey, expanded. 

The French sale to Iraq of Super Entredard jet fighters, with a range of 380 nautical miles, and Exocet missiles, gave Iraq tactical reach into the southern Persian Gulf.  Using the equipment, Iraq attacked the Kharj Island oil terminals in an attempt to disrupt its 2 million barrel per day capacity. Abu Ghazalah writes that the acquisition of the French Super Entredard fighter bomber revived Iraqi interest in unleashing chemical weapons deep into Iranian territory. 

Iraq’s tanker war tactics were also strategically designed to coax the international community into intervening, and to impose a cease-fire between Iraq and Iran.  France’s gains throughout the war stood at $4.8 billion in commercial interests, and $5.6 billion in military contracts.  Iran could only respond to this technology by placing IRGC forces, shore batteries, and anti-ship missiles in the Tunb Islands, and other enclaves along the Hormuz Strait, which caused the United States to issue a warning to Iran that it would not tolerate the closure of the strait.

1984: A Quarter of a Million Iranian Troops Mount Operation Khaybar

Iran finally began to put its tactical lessons into practice by planning for flanking operations against dug-in Iraqi forces in the northern and central zones.  They examined what they knew of the 700-kilometer front, and searched for ways to gain the tactical advantage without a direct assault.  Iraq’s Kurdish allies were drained, having lost 27,000 fighters by early 1984, and they ceased to be useful.  .  Iran planned for a three-wave assault with 250,000 troops (25-33 Divisions) to isolate Basra from Baghdad, and two secondary attacks, Operations Fee Fajr 5 and 6. The three-wave assault operation became known as Operation Khaybar (named for the Jewish city hamlet in Arabia at the time of Prophet Muhammad).  The Fee Fajr secondary assaults began with the objective of wearing down the 2nd Iraqi Corps (100,000 troops) guarding the Basra to Baghdad Road.  Operation Fee Fajr-5 focused assaults along the Basra to Baghdad road, and the objective of Fee Fajr-6 was to secure the hills overlooking that road.  These operations were unsuccessful.  Operation Khaybar, the main effort, involved pushing Iranian units through the marshes to achieve strategic surprise southeast and north of Basra.  Battles took place in the confluence of the Karun and Dajla Rivers in water that was 2 meters deep in places.  The attack from the marshes took the Iraqis by surprise, and the Iranians quickly occupied Majnoon Island, causing them to recognize the utility of conducting amphibious operations. 

Throughout February 1984, Iranians reconnoitered the southern rivers and developed a series of combined helo and river operations called Fatima al-Zahra (after Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and mother of Hussein).  Regiments of the 3rd Iraqi Army Corps were isolated from the main body, which allowed Iran to strengthen its hold of Majnoon Island and capture Baida Island.  In response, the Iraqis ran live electric cables throughout the marshes to electrocute Iranian forces, and subsequently displayed the Iranian corpses on Iraqi television.  Iraqis also broke dikes to raise the water level of the marshes.  Using helo sorties, the Iraqis saturated the marshes with missiles and high caliber gunfire.  Iran gained two small islands during Operation Khaybar, at the cost of 20,000 Iranian forces killed in action. 

Back to the Drawing Board: Iranian Higher Defense Council Reevaluates

Abu Ghazalah notes that the Iranians learned that the northern assaults suffered because of unreliable Kurdish allies, with a potential Turkish response.  Iran lacked sufficient armor to mount attacks to isolate Baghdad, as Iranian waves had to traverse open desert land, ideal for Iraqi counter-strikes.  Despite the element of surprise, it was not possible to approach through the marshes.  The Iraqi 3rd Army Corps guarding Basra could not be flanked without going around the marshes.  In addition, thanks to the aforementioned skill of Iraq’s combat engineers, Basra enjoyed thick, layered and multiple defenses.  A diversionary attack on Basra, with the objective of capturing the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr and control of the Faw Peninsula, could see the West intervene to protect Kuwait.  The Iranian Higher Defense Council approved Operation Khaybar II, the taking of the Faw Peninsula.  This required another draw of human resources to form ill-trained IRGC and regular units.  Iran was increasingly feeling the pain of inadequate human resources. 

From mid-1984 to 1986, a war of attrition ensued, and the next major offensive, Operation Khaybar II, took place in 1986, followed by the Battle for Basra in 1987.   In 1984, Iran spent four months preparing for Operation Badr. Abu Ghazalah remarks that this operation was a smaller scale version of Operation Khaybar, with one exception: it was better planned.  The Iranians improved logistical support lines into the marshes, amphibious tactics, and performed extensive reconnaissance of the battle space.  The Iraqis also learned from Operation Khaybar, and assessed the marshy terrain to plan for the ideal spot to bring armor to bear on areas of dry land.  The Iranians traversed the marsh and between the waterline and the Basra to Baghdad road, there were very few venues to amass forces and equipment in the marshes of southern Iraq, this was dependent on receding rivers and tributaries, weather, and a variety of factors. 

The Iraqis and the Iranians both studied how the marshes separated forces attempting to traverse them, and identified how to solve this tactical problem from an offensive (Iranian) and defensive (Iraqi) vantage point.  Operation Badr involed 100,000 Iranian troops and 65,000 held in reserve, organized into eight divisions, of which four were IRGC and volunteers.  This was the battle in which the Basij were first given anti-tank weapons, and the Iranians used pontoon bridges capable of moving 105 mm howitzers.  Iranians also deployed chemical shells for the first time, and provided units with anti-nerve gas antidotes.  The Iraqis met this threat with 10 divisions of the 4th Iraqi Army and 2 divisions of Border Guards deployed along the Baghdad to Basra road. 

Iran initiated Operation Badr on 10 March 1985, by shelling Basra and launching air raids on Baghdad.  The infantry assault began on the evening of 11 March.  Iranians achieved tactical surprise by concentrating their 10 divisions spread along the Baghdad-Basra road, which gave the Iraqis little time to react.  On 11 March, the Iranians advanced 10 kilometers and on the second day of the infantry assault added 14 more kilometers between Kurna (Qarna) and al-Wazir, along the east-west line of assault towards Basra.  On the third day, 13 March, Iranian volunteers and skirmishers reached the Dajla River.  By 14 March, pontoon bridges were set up with Iranian troop concentrations reaching the Baghdad-Basra road.

 The Iranian tactical problem was the lack of armor to hold onto these gains and to repel an Iraqi counter-offensive.  Within five days Iraq concentrated 25 divisions to counter the Iranian advance.  Attack helicopters ripped through Iranian troop concentrations and destroyed the pontoon bridges.  By 17 March, Iranian momentum eroded and its defenses crumbled.  Iraq did not exploit this advantage and instead continued to rely on its technological edge and defensive fortifications.  One notable Iranian failure was the delay by one week of the Iranian diversionary offensive, which subsequently failed to divert Iraqi troops and enabled Baghdad to concentrate 15 divisions, along with its 10 divisions that were initially spread out along the Basra to Baghdad road, on the counter-offensive.      

Throughout 1984 and 1985, the Iranian General Staff attempted to develop alternate tactics to the direct offensive assault, and focused on ways to take the war into an attritional phase.  Arguments ensued between the generals and clergy on the need for better training and organization.  Iranian combat leaders disputed the folly of holding symbolic ground in Iran and Iraq with no strategic value, and that holding such territory drained the main offensive efforts by siphoning off needed manpower and materiel.  The Iranian commanders began developing military infrastructure in the south, and cultivated tactical skills in amphibious and mountain operations.  Iraq’s calculus was simply to blunt Iran’s mass assaults by maintaining the technological edge.  Iraq began an exploration of developing early warning sensors in the southern marshes, so that they could react to Iranian probes and mass assaults by preemptively redirecting artillery, airpower and maneuver forces to oppose Iranian offensives. 

Iran opened 1985 with small harassing raids along the Basra to Baghdad road.  Iraq responded with battalion level infantry assaults at Qasr Shireen and Majnoon Island in January and February.  In November 1985, cease-fire talks between Iraq and the Kurds collapsed, which provided Iran with an opening to further exploit the Kurds as a proxy army.

Final Push (1986-1987)

Iraq went on the offensive on January 6, 1986, which is Iraq’s Army Day.  Iraq intended to dislodge Iranian units from the north of Majnoon Island.  This offensive evolved into a stalemate, with Iraq using women to guard rear units--a practice started in October 1985 and further exploited during this campaign.  Iran reinforced the south with 200,000 troops (20 Divisions) in order to stabilize the front between Ahvaz and Dezful.  Among those guarding this sector was the battle-hardened Karbala 25th Infantry and Najaf 8th Infantry Divisions.  Iran also began to import anti-chemical weapons countermeasures, while Syria aided Iran in the development of chemical weapons.  Iran’s amphibious exercises and training came to good use, as it gave Iranian military planners the option of carrying out strikes along the Shatt al-Arab Waterway.  Operation Fee Fajr 8 was an attempt to capture the Faw Peninsula, and to deprive Iraq access to the Persian Gulf.  From this peninsula, Iran could develop a northerly attack towards Basra, spark and nurture Shiite uprisings in the south, and strike a blow to Iraqi oil production. 

On 9 February 1986, the first phase of Operation Fee Fajr-8 commenced with two attacks against units of Iraq’s 3rd and 7th Armies.  Faced with stiff Iraqi defenses, the Iranians fell back to their usual tactic of human wave attacks and lost 4,000 troops in less than 24 hours.  This was an initial diversionary assault to hide the main effort of taking Majnoon Island, but the Iranians did not land enough armor or APCs, and once again this lack of armor and artillery thwarted Iran’s attempt to take Majnoon Island.

Operation Fee Fajr-9 was an attempt to relieve pressure on forces bogged down in Operation Fee Fajr-8 in the south.  The Iranians assigned two divisions of IRGC and Kurdish tribal allies to control key valleys that served as routes between Iraq and Iran.  The Iranians shaped this attack by sending 8 divisions to occupy 600 square kilometers of gains in northern Iraq.  The Iraqis re-deployed their forces from Suleimaniyah to the south and had no other forces in place to confront the Iranian forces during Operation Fajr-9.  Iraq exercised the option of chemical warfare once Iranian skirmishers arrived within artillery range of Suleimaniyah.  The Kurdish Peshmerga tied down an entire Iraqi Mountain Division and the 11th Iraqi Division.  To add to the tense situation in the north, 30,000 Turkish troops amassed on the border.  Iraq had to re-divert forces from the south to stop further Iranian/Kurdish gains.  Abu Ghazalah writes that had the Shiites in the south acted like the Kurds in the north, Saddam would have had no hope of winning this war.  Iran did gain 200 square kilometers of Iraqi territory, kept its pontoon bridge over the Shatt al-Arab Waterway, and was able to shuttle supplies and troops into the Faw Peninsula via regular watercraft.  Iran maintained 25,000 troops in defensive positions, but failed to provide them with adequate heavy equipment, except for artillery, which was directed toward Basra’s main air base al-Shaybiya.  Iraq responded with saturation fire, and Abu Ghazalah writes that the fire ratio between Iraq and Iran was seven-to-one. 

In April 1986, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for victory by the Islamic New Year (late March 1987).  Plans were crafted to recruit 500 battalions of 1,000 men each.  It was during this declaration that policy disagreements erupted between Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Rasfanjani, as well as between those in the regular armed forces and the IRGC.  The regular army wanted to develop more intelligent combat techniques, while the IRGC wanted to continue to employ human wave attacks.  These disagreements led to the call for 650,000 volunteers to augment 350,000 regular troops for a final offensive.  They also led to the declaration that Iraq would not have to provide war reparations to Iran if Saddam Hussein were ousted from power by a new Iraqi government. 

The Karbala series of offensives of 1987 followed the same recipe of mass attacks with little gains. Karbala-3, however, was unique in that it involved battles fought from and on oil platforms near the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.  The Iranians used 2,000 airborne troops on boats to attack an Iraqi oil platform.  Although only 130 of the 2,000 troops were able to get onto the platform, the Iranians still managed to take it.  The Iraqis reinforced the installation and retook the platform in mid-1986.  Iraq launched air assaults on Tabriz/Lafan Petroleum Plant, Kharj Island Oil Terminal, and Larak Island Oil Terminal.  Iraq now fielded 820,000 troops divided into seven Army Corps.  Karbala-4 commenced on December 1986 with 100,000 volunteers directing a mass assault from Abu Qusaib to Umm Risas Island along a 25-mile corridor.  What distinguishes this assault from the others is the use of a temporary 480-meter bridge over Shatt al-Arab.  Umm Risas Island eventually fell to the Iranians after appalling casualties.  Iraq concentrated artillery fire, heavy machine gunfire and airstrikes, resulting in 60,000 Iranian casualties compared to 9,500 Iraqi casualties. 

Karbala-5 and 6 was a renewed attempt at enveloping Basra and isolating the city from the rest of Iraq.  It was believed that the city could be transformed into an independent Shiite capital to compete with Baghdad.  The importance of Basra was not lost on the Iraqis, and more layered defenses were erected to include a man-made lake dug at 90 degree angles with electrified sections and barbed wire.  Six defensive firebases were built along the 200 square kilometers of barrier, protecting against the approaches to Basra.  The desperate nature of the stalemate became evident in 1987, when the IRGC called for the formation of the Prophet Muhammad Division and accepted volunteers as young as 14 into the ranks.

The stalemate frustrated both sides.  Iran demonstrated its frustration by stepping up terrorist tactics in Kuwait, in 1987.  That same year, Iranian gunboats interdicted commercial vessels bound for both Iraq and Kuwait.  The Emirate of Kuwait was vulnerable to attack from the Iranian controlled Faw Peninsula.  In response, Iraq increased airstrikes and struck a bridge linking Turkey and Iran, a large refinery in Tehran, railway and satellite links in Aradabad, and maritime shipping in the Gulf.  Iran, by 1987, had positioned 300,000 to 400,000 troops along a 1,100 kilometer span to stabilize the front.  Despite attempts to retake the Faw Peninsula and Majnoon Island in 1986, the Iraqis resorted to bombing Sirri Island, 240 kilometers southeast near the Strait of Hormuz.  This shook Iranian confidence concerning the safety of their oil imports in southern installations near the Hormuz Strait.  Iran reacted by firing Type-72 Chinese missiles at several Iraqi cities.  In 1986, nineteen of these Iranian missiles were fired, and one year later the number was increased to eighty-one, and in 1988 one hundred and four missiles were directed at Iraqi cities.  The Iraqi General Staff did not lay plans to assault the Faw Peninsula and marshes despite favorable weather patterns in 1988 that dried the marshes and allowed for the deployment of armor into the dried beds of this usually watery swamp.  The Iran-Iraq War digressed into a very slow war of attrition in which Iran ever so slowly gained the advantage.  The question of who won the war was contingent on outside interference and support, as Iraq craved advanced weapons that could deliver higher kill rates, while Iran desired weapons that could capitalize on their advantage in human resources.  It is clear that Saddam realized that he was on the losing end of a long drawn out war that he was eager to extricate himself from, and to declare victory.  It was a war that he started, deluded into thinking that the Iranian revolution had purged its best military commanders and weakened the nation, allowing it to be overtaken.  Even Saddam underestimated the revolutionary fervor of the Iranian regime and their use of Shiite ideology to create one of the largest and most tragic and tactically pointless human wave assaults in the history of warfare. 


In the introduction to Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of War, Lawrence G Potter and Gary G. Sick observe that, “the Persian Gulf states, and indeed the entire Middle East, were profoundly affected by the Iran-Iraq War…and its sequels, the Gulf War of 1990-91 and the war against Iraq in 2003”.  This is not surprising, as the Iran-Iraq War was a long and arduous conflict whose scars still run deep on both sides of the Shatt al-Arab, or, as it is better known in Iran, the Arvand Rud Waterway.  

Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazalah’s book is regarded as the most thorough and accurate Arab account of the Iran-Iraq war, and can provide interesting insights and contrasts when compared with English works on the subject.   Kenneth M. Pollack, in his volume titled Arabs at War, indicates that while planning the initial invasion, Iraq, as the invader, expected the conflict to last no longer than two weeks. This was one of the first of many misconceptions and missteps that occurred throughout the duration of the eight-year war on both sides of the front, and only further protracted the conflict.

It is interesting to point out a couple of similar misconceptions and missteps that befell both Iraq and Iran throughout the course of the war.  Firstly, both countries did not initially trust their military leadership and placed loyalty to the regime ahead of professional competency. The consequences of the decision to politicize these respective militaries, especially the officer corps, were mutually disastrous, and eventually forced both regimes to reverse their policies in order to foster any hope of defeating the other side.  Both regimes also thought that they could exploit the religious and ethnic differences of their adversaries’ minority populations. In the case of Iran, it was the Iraqi Kurds in the north, and in the case of Iraq, it was the Iranian Arab Shia in the south. Both assumptions proved false, as invasions into each other’s countries unified, rather than divided, the populations that were under siege in spite of ethnic or religious differences.  This also illustrates another point, in that both countries fared better when defending their homeland as opposed to invading the others.  For example, Iran would not have lost the war if they had kept their original strategy and accepted Iraq’s offer of a truce in 1982, instead of going on the offensive and effectively continuing the conflict for another six years at a heavy price.

Abu Ghazalah’s analysis is just one of several excellent Arabic volumes on Middle Eastern military history, strategy, tactics and procedures with which U.S. military personnel should become familiar. Despite the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq and a drawdown of our forces in Afghanistan, these types of works remain relevant, simply because the management of the region will always occupy America’s military planners and decision makers.  We must make every effort to expand our knowledge and understanding of this complex, historic and fascinating part of the world as we prepare to face current and future challenges.

The most pressing challenge presently facing the U.S. in regards to Iran is how to resolve concern over Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  The status and intent of Iran’s nuclear program has long been a controversial subject that affects not only the U.S., but the entire world, particularly Israel and Iraq.  For Iraq, its oil exports comprise a significant portion of its income, and although the Strait of Hormuz was not closed during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, Iraq fears that it may be in the near future, causing them to reevaluate their current oil shipment routes.  As Iran continues to deny possessing or pursuing nuclear weapons, nations such as the U.S. and Israel are faced with difficult decisions about how to approach the matter and ensure the strategic balance of power in the Middle East. 

When evaluating the possible consequences of preemptive military action against Iran, it is crucial that U.S. military personnel reflect on Iran’s past military confrontations, such as the Iran-Iraq War.  From a historical perspective we can analyze Iran’s strengths, weaknesses, and military strategy during a time of war, and assess if the outcome is likely to be favorable toward a resolution of Iran’s nuclear program.  Many of Iran’s senior military leaders were shaped by the Iran-Iraq War, it is impossible to understand the psychology and tactical thinking of these men without an appreciation of the Iran-Iraq War.  One of the most important lessons to be learned from the Iran-Iraq War is not to underestimate Iran’s military capabilities, as Iraq did at the start of the war when it decided to attack Iran.  Iraq’s belief that the war would only last a short time and would be an easily achievable victory proved fatal. It became complacent throughout the war and did not attempt to change its strategy in any way, even when its strategy demonstrated failure.  Iran, however, constantly evolved throughout the war and, most importantly, learned from its mistakes, proving it strategically intelligent.  This ability to adapt is a key strength for Iran, and must be considered and analyzed when deliberating over possible military action with the country. The ability to synthesize historical events into knowledge is paramount for the U.S. One of the most beneficial means to doing so is through reading historical works of military significance, especially those of other origins. Abu Ghazalah’s book about military strategy during the Iran-Iraq War is an excellent example of one such piece.

Categories: Iraq - Iran-Iraq War - Iran

About the Author(s)

Ms. Dorothy Corley, recently graduated with her B.A. in International Relations from Boston University and has an interest in the Middle East, she served as a teaching assistant and intern at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2011.    

Andrew Bertrand is a former Plans Operations and Medical Intelligence (POMI) officer in the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps.  He retired at the rank of Lieutenant Commander in 2011.  He now provides contract support as a Health Services Analyst at Naval Warfare Development Command (NWDC) in Norfolk, VA. Both officers have a passion for strategy, tactics, and Middle East affairs.  

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.  


Mark Pyruz

Wed, 04/25/2012 - 1:41am

Thanks for uploading part III, I've been looking forward to it.

There are a few problems with this piece, a few of which might be typos, such as: "Iraq also acquired French Aerospatiale Super Frelon attack helicopters, enabling it to far surpass the Iranian Soviet fighters." Are we referring to Soviet fighter planes in IRIAF service? That can't be.

I agree with Turkestani, there are significant elements of the war missing here, such as the massive influx of cash, arms purchases, foreign technical assistance, intelligence assistance and UN cover that was provided to Iraq in this struggle.

I also don't think it correct to label the Kurds as a "proxy" of Iran, as both Iran and the Kurds were active in the hostilities. It's more accurate to characterize them as allies.

Mention is made of the Iraqi Shiites that remained loyal to the Baathist regime during the war, but there's no mention of the Iraqi Shiites that were taken POW or took refuge in Iran. It were large numbers (many thousands) of these that became won over by Iran and crossed over, back into Iraq, upon the immediate collapse of the Baathist regime, at the onset of OIF. In fact, one could argue that the Iran-Iraq war was ultimately won for Iran by the U.S. military as an unintentional consequence of OIF. Persons like myself who have been studying this Iraq-Iran relationship for decades now are amazed at how close relations have become, in so short a period, following that terrible war in the 1980s. These days, whenever the Iraqis have a political or military crisis, who do they turn to? The Iranians. And as for the Iranians, where did they request the next venue for the nuclear discussion be held? Baghdad. Both countries share a near identical foreign policy. Not quite a Shia superstate, the two of them, but closer than most here in the West would like to admit.

But this kind of discussion is beyond the scope of battlefield tactics and war strategy during the Iran-Iraq War. I'm hoping to write a more detailed response to this piece sometime within the next two weeks, as a more lengthy comment wouldn't be appropriate here at SWJ.

One last comment, though. There are historians that perceive WWI, WWII and the Cold War in linear terms, as one interwoven conflict (as opposed to three separate wars). The same can be said of the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War (Saddam invades Kuwait) and OIF.


Tue, 04/24/2012 - 12:26pm

Kudos to Cmdr Aynein and team for these articles. This is interesting material which explains, or at least puts in perspective, a number of Iraqi Army behaviors and responses during especially the 1990-91 attack and subsequent liberation of Kuwait. And also to some degree regarding the 2003 US invasion.
Mainly, I would posit, that employing static defenses is not necessarily so stupid if the opponent is not able to outflank or overrun them due to lack of mastery of conventional combined arms operations. Employing them against the US & Coalition forces obviously was bad, but given an order to defend and stand the ground from Bagdad, one can hardly fault the IA for falling back on tactics that at least had worked well in the past...

As Mark Pyruz's comments to part II would indicate, there are obviously other viewpoints to these events than that of the good Field Marshall. Not least the Iranians's. Re part II, the Iranians would probably take issue with the rather glib statements regarding Khorramshahr. Iraqi forces met stiff resistance here and never managed to completely capture that city. Also re part II; the Iraqis defending Basra against the first human-wave assaults in 1982 and 1983 were probably harder pressed than the Marshall lets on.

One would have been interested to hear the Field Marshall's take on the Iraqis purchase of heavy tank transporters and the resulting strategic mobility this gave (parts of) the Iraqi tank fleet late in the war.

Being from the Egyptian army, and thus from an institution which was an early user of chemical weapons in Yemen, one would also have liked to hear a more detailed take on that aspect of the war from the Marshall.

Finally, there is no credit to Soviet field engineering. While Iraqi field engineering was undoubtedly relatively good, it is hardly creditable that the Iraqis should have planned the excellent defenses around Basra themselves while not being able to dig-in and plan defense around newly conquered cities shortly before that, when they were on the offensive.


Thank you for making this three part series available. I have the late Field Marshall's book, but it remains untranslated.

Often forgotten was the initial aim for Iraq in starting the war, and that was to take control of the Shatt Al-'Arab waterway.

Perhaps a bit of history without going back too far, since who controls the Shatt is a centuries old issue: In 1847, Iran, then called Persia, under pressure from the Ottoman Empire, which included what is now Iraq, signed the Treaty of Erzerum which gave sovereignty of the entire waterway to the Ottomans. Under the terms of this treaty, the major Persian port on the Shatt Al-”Arab, the Port of Khorramshahr, could only be reached through waters controlled by the Ottomans.

After the Turks were defeated in World War I and the breakup of their empire afterward, the League of Nations granted Britain the mandate of the region, which also included I what’s now Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. After the British drew the current borders and granted Iraq its independence in 1932, Iraq demanded it be allowed to continue sovereignty over the waterway, and based on British military might at the time, received it.

Although Iran appealed to the League of Nations a few years later, Iraqi retained its sovereignty over the entire width of the waterway, although in 1937, the two countries agreed to some modifications to the sovereignty line that allowed Iran access to its oil refinery areas at Abadan and the Port of Khorramshahr.

Obviously, in 1980, Iraq abrogated the treaty and launched a two-corps attack into Iran that Ghazalah describes in his first installment. With the start of the First Gulf War, sovereignty over the waterway became a moot point, since commercial ships were sunk or trapped in the waterway and it was closed to navigation. Even after the war ended in 1988, sunken ships, along with unexploded ordnance, and a build-up of silt kept the waterway closed for years;just as efforts to clear the waterway of explosives and the trapped ships was about to start, the Second Gulf War precipitated by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 effectively closed the waterway again.

Faced with imminent coalition military action, Iraq sought to defuse the tensions remaining after the end of the Iran-Iraq War by reinstating the provisions of the Treaty of Algiers, and giving up sovereignty over the entire width of the waterway.

Some might say because of Iran’s horrendous casualties it lost the war with Iraq, but I would submit that because Iraq failed at its initial purpose in going to war, and Iran now controls the Shatt Al-’Arab waterway, Iran was the victory, although perhaps a Pyrrhic victory.