Small Wars Journal

Egyptian Field Marshal Abdul-Halim Abu Ghazalah on the Combat Tactics and Strategy of the Iran-Iraq War

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 6:54am

Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazalah


With the current escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf created by Iranian military shows of force it is important for United States military leaders to immerse themselves in Iranian asymmetric as well as conventional military techniques.  This requires an examination not only of Iran’s conventional forces, but also of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and of unconventional formations such as the “Basij”, a volunteer populist force of the ruling theocracy.  Although books in English can be found on Iran and its security forces and intelligence apparatus, books written in Arabic and other regional languages offer a different and regional perspective into a country whose leadership has developed into an adversary.

Egyptian Field Marshal Abdul-Halim Abu Ghazalah (1930-2008) served as Defense Minister from 1982 to 1989.   He was sitting next to President Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981, when Sadat was gunned down by Islamist militants.  Abu Ghazalah sustained an injury during the assassination.  In 1989, former President Hosni Mubarak abruptly replaced Abu Ghazalah for his involvement in a scheme to pass U.S. military technology to Iraq via Argentina.  While in retirement, Abu Ghazalah authored several books on warfare and strategy, including the subject of this three part series, an exceptional Arabic book in 1993 on the combat tactics and strategy of the Iran-Iraq War.  It is best described as a memoir on Abu Ghazalah’s ideas, observations and analysis of the Iran-Iraq War.  The book is entitled, “Al-Ḥarb al-Irāqīyah al-Īrānīyah, 1980-1988,” which translates into the Iran-Iraq War 1980 to 1988.  It represents the best articulated historical account from an Arab perspective of the Iraq-Iran War.  Abu Ghazalah also authored several other military works, including a 1983 book while he was still Defense Minister entitled “Intiṣārāt al-Arabīyah al-uẓmá fī ṣadr al-Islām : dirāsah an fann al-ḥarb al-ʻArabī” translated as Arab Victories in the Bosom of Islam: A Study of the Art of Arab Warfare. While in retirement he served as Presidential Advisor to Hosni Mubarak during the First Gulf War.  Rediscovering, analyzing and discussing Abu Ghazalah’s writings will certainly enrich the growing discourse among America’s military personnel and defense policy leaders on the subject of Middle East warfare.

Abu Ghazalah’s Discourse on Arab and Persian Differences           

For centuries, Iran has remained a strategic concern for Arab states, and in more recent times, a concern for the United States as well.  The divisions between Arabs and Iranians include religious differences between Sunni and Shiite, ethnic differences between Arab and Persian, linguistic differences between Semitic Arabic and Indo-Aryan Farsi, and more recently, growing global concern over Iran’s revolutionary influences in the region. 

In 1971, Iran, under the Shah, annexed three strategic islands: the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa from the United Arab Emirates.  Iran succeeded in signing an agreement with Oman, giving it greater control of the Hormuz Strait in exchange for aiding the Sultanate with troops and military advisers in fighting the Dhoffar Rebellion.    

A few years later, Iraq was battling the Kurds in the Second Kurdish War, from 1974 to 1975. Kenneth M. Pollack, of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brooking Institute, in his volume titled Arabs at War (University of Nebraska Press, 2002), underscores that Iran’s support of the Kurdish Peshmerga during the Second Kurdish War curtailed Iraqi momentum and “finally stalemated the war in the spring of 1975”.   Saddam Hussein (then Iraq’s Foreign Minister) negotiated the subsequent cease-fire agreement known as the Algiers Accord, as described by Pollack.  Although Iraq conceded territory to Iran, in return the Shah terminated support to Iraqi Kurds, which enabled Iraq to effectively quell the Kurdish revolt shortly after the Accord was signed on 6 March 1975. 

The Revolution of 1979 toppled the Shah of Iran, and ushered in the abrupt and dramatic rise of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist regime.  Other Arab regimes began to reevaluate prior agreements with Iran following the events of 1979.  Abu Ghazalah’s book opens during this tumultuous period, and he cites the reasons for war between Iran and Iraq as fear of Shiite Islamic fervor and agitation throughout the Arab world, and Iraq seeing a potential opportunity to replace Iran as the regional policeman of the Persian Gulf.  It was also a chance to dissolve the 1975 Algiers Agreement and to regain and restore Iraqi land mass and strategic waterways.  Saddam Hussein became President of Iraq in 1980 and believed it was Iraq’s destiny to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf as the protector of Arab civilization from the Persian onslaught. In his book Abu Ghazalah claims that Saddam began entertaining thoughts of attacking Iran as soon as the Shah was overthrown in February 1979.    The Iraqi dictator laid the ground-work internally and externally for this gamble by building his forces, securing financial grants from Arab Gulf States and discussing strategic depth scenarios with Jordan.  A key indicator that Saddam was preparing an attack was his attempts during this period to improve relations with the West.  A domestic media campaign showed Iranian encroachment on Iraqi lands, Persian Shiite hegemony and accusations of Iran aiding Israel with petroleum exports.  Slogans included in the campaign demonstrated how Khomeini’s Shiite vision would supplant Nasser’s dream of Pan-Arab nationalism.  Abu Ghazalah observed that Saddam’s intelligence and security apparatus conducted methodological studies of the Iranians prior to the start of the war.  Iraq assessed that Iran possessed strategic depth and modern American military equipment, although the United States ceased all weapons sales, replacements and spare parts following the crisis of 1979.  Iran’s religious fervor resulted in regional and global isolation. Saddam’s generals observed Iran with interest and received briefs from anti-Khomeini Iranian exiles. The briefs documented the ideological interference of the Iranian Armed Forces and the purging of experienced commanders with a new religious-based class of officers with little tactical experience.  Ghazalah’s book estimates that the Iranian Armed Forces purged 12,000 officers and NCOs.  At the time Iran’s regular army and the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) competed against one another for Khomeini’s favor.  At the time Iran had an appalling military administrative and logistical system that prevented Iran from optimizing access to stored U.S. military materiel and parts.  Iran’s once respected military academies and military technical schools excelled only in ideological rhetoric in the early years of the Iranian Revolution.  The Iraqis also received reports that Iranian nationalist fighting with Islamist radicals was destabilizing the country.

Saddam’s calculus pointed towards a rare opportunity to conquer a long-time foe.  On the Iraqi side of the military balance sheet, Iraq enjoyed single-party rule, better relations with the Arab and western world, and access to markets and weapons.  However, training Iraqi forces on the newly acquired western equipment and absorbing massive amounts of hardware into Iraq’s military formations proved problematic at best.  Iraq started the war with better reserves of hard currency when compared to Iran, more opportunities to export oil, and financial backing from other Arab Gulf States.  Abu Ghazalah writes that the Iraqi General Staff suffered from strategic wishful thinking by believing the stories told by Iranian exiles that described Iran as weak and divided, to the point that they could not sustain an Iraqi military offensive.  Iraq was also convinced that Iranian-Arabs in the Arabistan region would rise up against Khomeini.  Iraqi leadership grossly misjudged the geographic strategic depth that major Iranian cities, such as Tehran, enjoyed, as well as its towns, oil pipelines, and refineries when compared to Iraq.  The senior Iraqi officer corps and command posts were awarded based on loyalty and not based on military competence.  Perhaps the least surprising aspect of the Iraqi officer corps is that it was paralyzed with fear of the Baathist regime and of Saddam Hussein.  Field Marshal Abu Ghazalah reveals that a few years before the opening of hostilities between Iraq and Iran, a round of Saddam’s purges saw 300 officers relieved for incompetence and 15 executed in order to instill motivation and fear.  Iran has also carried our purges of officers deemed insufficiently committed to the Islamic Revolution postulated by Khomeini.  This purge only served to anaesthetize any military creativity or initiative.  The majority of the purged commanding officers were Sunni’s from Saddam’s town of Tikrit.  They were placed in charge of Iraqi Shiite formations. Iraq’s modern weaponry was severely hampered by primitive command and control systems, which in turn impacted battlefield management, chiefly in the art of maneuver warfare.           

Before Saddam began the war with Iran, Iraq was transitioning from bulk Eastern weapons systems to Western equipment.  Iraq’s military intelligence was reliant on human intelligence (HUMINT); they lacked any serious signals intelligence (SIGINT) capability.  Photoreconnaissance existed but was extremely elementary.  This was a reflection of Iraq’s focus on gathering intelligence internally on its own forces and people.  This would be an endemic problem throughout the eight-year war, as they were incapable of engaging in predictions of Iranian intentions, plans or formations.  Iraq’s aerial early warning systems were in a developmental stage, and in 1979 they possessed command and control for air force and air defense units, but they lacked the ability to coordinate these two aerial defense arms.  Training on this equipment was marginal, and this would come to be painfully obvious in 1981, when Israel launched an air strike and destroyed the OSIRAK nuclear reactor.  Beneath the surface of Iraqi formations were Shia, Sunni and Kurd animosities; however, this sectarianism would not cripple the stalwart Iraqi defense during the eight-year conflict. 

From 1974 to 1978, Iran imported $8.7 billion in military equipment, of which $6.8 billion were U.S. weapons.  Throughout the same four years Iraq imported $5.3 billion in military equipment from western and Soviet supply sources to include the United States.  Ghazalah claims that $800 million of the $5.3 billion went toward the purchase of “advanced” technology that didn’t truly meet the definition of advanced.  In the decade of the seventies, Iran, under the Shah, imported 50 to 100 percent more weapons than Iraq until shipments to Iran were abruptly halted in early 1979.  The decade of the eighties saw these percentages reversed in Iraq’s favor.  During the war, the percentages of weapons imports for each side were:

Iraq    37% Soviet Union

            10% China

            12% Warsaw Pact

            37% Western Europe (France receiving the lion’s share of weapons contracts)

            03 % Other nations



Iran     21% China

            02% Soviet Union

            31% Warsaw Pact

            46% Various nations, and the open market

Abu Ghazalah spends a chapter discussing the economics of the Iran-Iraq War.  He writes that the total Iranian and Iraqi weapons imports for the war reached a peak of $55 billion and represented approximately 1/3 of the Gross Domestic Product of all developing nations combined.

Human Balance 

The overall difference in the size of the general populations between these two adversaries weighed heavily in Iran’s favor.  Iraq compensated by importing human resources for civil and military projects.  Egyptian laborers were used to dig trenches.  Of 3 million non-Iraqi laborers, 2 million foreign workers were used directly in the war effort.  Anthony H. Cordesman and Abraham R. Wagner note in The Lessons of Modern War, Volume II: The Iran-Iraq War, that despite Iran’s larger general population, Iraq maintained the advantage over Iran in actual numbers of trained military personnel. After the revolution, the Iranian armed forces were in complete disarray, and the subsequent international restrictions that were placed on the country significantly reduced Iran’s ability to build up, supply and maintain its military.  Although Iraq’s manpower problems were in some ways similar to Iran’s, the Iranians’ inability to train in combined arms was more pronounced.  Iran’s training was limited almost exclusively to light infantry tactics because of Iran’s penchant for conducting human wave attacks. Cordesman and Wagner further state in their book that “…the Iran-Iraq War is a lesson in the fact that it is military organization and not total population that counts.”.

The Front

The Southern Front can be divided into several sectors stretching north to south through cities close to the Iraqi border that served as logistical and military staging areas.  These cities included Khoramshahr on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, Dahlran, a city in the Zagros Mountains, al-Ahwaz, Abadan and Dezful.  The main battles occurred in the Southern Front.  The Central Front had fewer roads but did have vistas that opened into Iraq from the rocky terrain in Iran.  Iranian cities close to the Iran-Iraq border saw action and supported Iranian forces; they included Mehran, Qasr Shirin and Karmanshah.  The Iraqi cities of Kufa, Basra, Baghdad, and al-Suleimaniyah would also become involved in the action.  The Northern Front had two major roads, but contained Kurds on both sides of the border and was less hospitable mountain terrain. 


Iraq’s political-military objectives at the onset of the war with Iran included:

  •  Return of the Shatt al-Arab Waterway (known in Iran as the Arvand Rud) as an integral part of Iraq;
  • Destruction of Iranian units along the border with Iraq;
  • Securing of oil fields in Iranian Khuzestan;
  • Toppling of or dictating terms to Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary leaders and marginalizing Iraq’s source of ideological influence in the region (Arab nationalism).

It is worthwhile to highlight Kenneth Pollack’s observation that the key ingredient in Iraqi’s ability to achieve the preceding objectives was the seizure of the Khuzestan province.

The Opening Gambit

The Iraqi General Staff’s initial offensive strike plans called for Iraqi units to conduct a primary strike against Iranian units stationed along the Ahvaz-Abadan line, and then to advance to the banks of the Qarun River by D+6.  Another Iraqi unit was ordered to either cripple or to destroy Iranian forces guarding the Khuzestan region and secure it by D+10.  Remaining Iraqi forces were to secure the Turkish and Syrian borders. 

Iraqi Deployments before the Start of the War

Northern Military Sector: Headquarters were in Kirkuk and made up of an armored division, a mechanized infantry division, two infantry divisions and a mountain infantry unit.

Central Military Sector: Headquartered in Baghdad and composed of one infantry division and two armored divisions reinforced by a Revolutionary Guard Corps (note the Republican Guards did not exist at the opening of the Iran-Iraq War).

Southern Military Sector: Headquartered in Nasiriyah and composed of two mechanized infantry divisions, and two armored divisions. 

On D-Day, the Iraqi’s launched a diversionary assault in the north, a main thrust in the south, and a pincer attack on Ahvaz.  Pushing Iranian units to Dezful, Iraqi forces proceeded eastward and secured the southern petroleum fields of Khuzestan, gaining just over 25,000 square kilometers of Khuzestan. 

Two infantry divisions, one armored division and one Special Forces regiment comprised the Iraqi main thrust in the southern sector.  One Special Forces regiment and one armored division were positioned in the central sector.  One infantry division, one armored division, and one mechanized infantry division were positioned in the northern front as a diversion.  One infantry division, one mechanized division and one Special Forces regiment were held in reserve in the event that the southern sector required reinforcements.

It is worth noting that there is an intriguing difference in the number of divisions listed in Abu Ghazalah’s preceding description of deployed forces when compared with Pollack’s.  Abu Ghazalah’s account lists eleven divisions, whereas Pollack’s account claims Iraq initiated the war with Iran with nine divisions. Both list three infantry divisions, but Abu Ghazalah’s account includes one additional mechanized division and one additional armored division.

The opening hours of the war saw Iran drained of divisional and corps level military leadership.  All strategic decisions were in the hands of mullahs and revolutionary councils.  The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was newly established and did not command the respect of regular forces.  It reduced its regular forces by half and many U.S. weapons contracts had been previously cancelled due to the hostage crisis in 1979.  Iran’s strategy was framed as a war of ideology against imperialism, communism and Zionism and the preservation of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. 

Iran’s primary strategic objective was initially to defeat Iraqi forces in Iran by stopping the advance of Iraqi units eastward, while protecting industrial assets.  Iran’s secondary strategic objective was to threaten Iraqi industrial assets.  The Iranian’s operational level objective was to isolate Iraqi front line units from their reserves and logistical pipeline.  Iraq faced two mechanized divisions guarding the northern sector, an infantry division and airborne regiment in the central sector, and an armored and air defense division in the southern sector.

This concludes the first of three essays on Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazalah’s account of the Iran-Iraq war. The second essay will focus primarily on Ghazalah’s description of the period from August 1980 to July 1982.

Categories: Iraq - Iran - Egypt

About the Author(s)

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.  

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.  

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.    


Mark Pyruz

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 10:12pm

Interesting to hear of an Egyptian perspective on the Imposed War (Jang-e Tahmīlī).

I realize this is presented as an Arab military take on the conflict, but I've noticed a few errors on some of the background pertaining to the Iranian situation prior to the onset of hostilities. I think I'll wait and read the three parts before offering a critique on this review.

As I believe this part of the review provides a very brief description of the background and planning for Saddam's first war of aggression in the region, I would add a few items:

1) Saddam expected IrAF to replicate the IDF/AF destruction of the UAR/AF during the initial outbreak of hostilities.

2) Iraqi and Western intelligence believed IRIAF to be thoroughly paralyzed due to the internal Iranian crackdown following the failed CIA coup attempt involving Iranian air force officers (Nojeh coup).

3) An Iraqi war aim was to seize Khuzestan in a short war. Saddam quickly sought a ceasefire, even before his more ambitious objectives had been met. But the initial strategy was a quick and limited land grab, and right away seek a ceasefire. As it turned out, Saddam was willing to settle for less, early on, due to a number of factors: a) the logistical incompetency of IA, b) the woeful inability of the IrAF to knock out IRIAF in the opening round of the war, and C) the nasty surprise delivered by IRIAF against a multitude of Iraqi targets, some of them strategic, including knocking out the Iraqi Navy, a strike against the Iraqi Tuweitha nuclear complex, strikes against power stations and airbases, and numerous interdiction missions against IA and its supply lines. But I'm delving into the initial stage of the war, and I'm guessing this will be covered in part 2 of the review.

I've a question: does Ghazalah's account include an Iraqi OOB with unit identifications?