AMMAN, Jordan — Iran said Tuesday that its forces have captured what was once Iraq's major Persian Gulf oil port in the second day of an offensive in which both sides claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties.
Iraq immediately denied as "delirious and groundless" the Iranian claim to have captured the port of Al Faw, which is 38 miles south of the Iranian city of Khorramshahr. An Iraqi spokesman said Al Faw and an island in the Shatt al Arab waterway that Iran also claimed to have captured are "completely under Iraqi forces' control."
But the reports of Iran's advances clearly worried other Arab states on the gulf, particularly Kuwait, whose capital is only 50 miles from Al Faw and which was described by Tehran radio on Tuesday as a "new neighbor" of Iran.
"Kuwait condemns and is deeply concerned by Iran's attempts to occupy Iraqi territory," the emirate said in a statement. "Its offensive threatens security and greatly harms countries in the region."
Kuwait is one of the prime financial backers of Iraq in its 5 1/2-year war with Iran, which unlike the other gulf countries is not Arab. Kuwait and the other gulf states have been concerned for several years that Iran's Islamic Revolution could inflame the region.
Al Faw sits on the Persian Gulf itself, and before the war it was Iraq's primary terminal for exporting oil. It came under attack at the beginning of the war in September, 1980, and was virtually abandoned by the Iraqis, reducing the strategic value of its capture to the Iranians.
"The green flag of Islam is now flying over the highest minaret in Al Faw," Iranian President Ali Khamenei told several hundred thousand Iranians gathered in Tehran's Azadi Square to mark the seventh anniversary of the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi and the rise to power of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Drive Seen as Feint
Military analysts now believe that Iran's latest drive, which has swung south of the city of Basra, may be a feint designed to draw Iraqi defenders from the northern and eastern approaches to Basra. It has long been the Iranian objective to threaten Basra, Iraq's second largest city, in an effort to destabilize the regime of President Saddam Hussein.
"The capture of Al Faw would probably have more psychological significance than military," said William J. Olson, who teaches at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "It brings them close to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and shows them the risks they can incur for supporting Iraq."
While the Iranians claimed to have cut off the Iraqis from the gulf, Olson noted, they in fact accomplished this early in the war. Most Iraqi imports enter by road from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Much of Iraq's oil exports travel by pipeline to Turkey.
Al Faw was the point where the British army landed an expeditionary force against the Ottoman Empire in October, 1914. It took the British, with considerably more of an edge then than the Iranians have now, until 1916 to reach Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
"The Iranians cannot sustain an offensive for any amount of time," Olson said. "The Iranian advantage is in flexibility of tactics and their tenacity. The Iraqis have to be willing to spend large amounts of energy and blood to get them out."
The Associated Press said in a dispatch from Baghdad that diplomats in the Iraqi capital generally accept the official account of Iranian invaders being repelled in the Hawizah marshlands north of Basra, which appears to be a second prong of the Iranian offensive launched Sunday night.
But the news agency quoted the diplomats as saying that heavy fighting was raging in the south along the western banks of the Shatt al Arab waterway, a 120-mile long estuary which runs from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the gulf.
The Iraqi statements, at times contradictory, appeared to be a confirmation that the island of Umm al Rasas had fallen at one point to the Iranians. The Iraqi news agency said the island, which was a former oil installation, has been "liberated" from the Iranians.
In all, the Iraqis claimed to have killed more than 1,800 Iranian troops in the fighting, while Iran said 3,000 Iraqis have been killed or wounded. Both sides reported taking large numbers of prisoners, but neither released its own casualty figures.
In the absence of any independent reporting of the offensive, it was impossible to verify the claims of either Iraq or Iran.
For years, the gulf war has been fought out in communiques as well as the battlefront. At one point Tuesday, each countries dared the other to bring foreign journalists to the areas which they claim to hold.