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Iranian Siege Brings War Home to Iraq

March 09, 1986|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen has covered the Middle East for many years.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — "Whatthe IrAnians take they hold." That has most often proved true of earlier Iranian military operations on Iraqi soil, and the Iraqis are just beginning to wonder whether it may not be the case in their battle to dislodge the Iranians from their bridgehead on the Al Faw Peninsula. The fear is that the current hard fighting may end in a stalemated siege situation around a small but firmly held Iranian enclave.

There is every reason why that should not happen, why one side or the other must strive for a clear, decisive victory. The Al Faw battle is unprecedented in the six-year-old war because it is the first vital strategic battle fought on Iraqi soil. It is vital because it is being fought on the Iraqi side of the Shatt al Arab estuary--on the Arab and Sunni Muslim side of a geographical, national, racial, linguistic, psychological frontier that divides the Iraqis from the Farsi-speaking Persian Shias. It is, therefore, incomparably more important than earlier Iranian seizures of Iraqi marshlands or remote hilly ridges. It has the same resonance as an attack across the Rio Grande would have for Americans.

The Iraqis, as a people and a nation, not just the Hussein regime, cannot accept an Iranian enclave west of the Shatt; it must be eliminated. Similarly, the Iranians cannot let this psychological gain be wrenched from their hands. Which is why, unlike earlier short-lived Iranian offensives, the Al Faw fighting is still intense four weeks after the first surprise attack. It can be expected to go on and on and on, even in a siege situation. So far Iranian casualties are reliably estimated at 20,000 and the Iraqis at half that figure.

The hard and continuous fighting at Al Faw has placed an extra strain on Iraqi morale because it has once again reminded people, of the high cost of the war in terms of Iraqi lives and of its futility and endlessness. After being absent for some time, the black banners of mourning for individuals killed are once again conspicuous outside houses and mosques here.

The basis of Iraqi morale remains essentially negative. The Iraqis do not know with any conviction what they are fighting for but they do know only too clearly what they are fighting against. As President Saddam Hussein put it revealingly in a recent speech: "To take up arms is for Iraqis an honorable mission because it is the only choice they have." No other choice ,that is, but to go on fighting against the imposition of a repressive, fanatical, Iranian-sponsored regime ruled by the mullahs.

Despite these emotional and political Imperatives, military realities point to a less-than -decisive conclusion. The Iraqis managed to shove the Iranians back about six miles towards the bridgehead, now manned by 30,000 Iranians, around which they have established a defensive arc about five miles from Al Faw itself. This means that the larger, strategic Iranian threats to Basra, Iraq's second city, and to the international highway linking Iraq with the gulf have virtually been eliminated.

So far so good. But the appalling waterlogged terrain has slowed down, even halted, the advance of the three-pronged Iraqi counterattack, involving a force of 80,000 men. All three columns have to advance along a single narrow road, the area between columns either extremely soft or under several feet of water when it is high tide in the gulf.

For the Iranians, the Al Faw position makes for difficult lines of communication in what is a very exposed position. They have not yet been able to throw permanent pontoon bridges across the Shatt because it is a more than half-a-mile wide, with a strong current and a tidal rise and fall of 10 feet. Only by using flotation walkways and a swarm of small boats have they have been able to provision and reinforce the bridgehead. But this is a precarious military situation, particularly because the Iraqi air force, acting with unusual vigor this time, has managed to destroy at least six of the bridges linking the battle area with Iranian rear bases. This could become decisive when the Shatt begins to flood in April. In the process, the Iraqi air force has lost 30 planes.

The Iranian seizure and retention of Al Faw during the past four weeks was a bad enough blow for the Iraqis. Just as serious, perhaps even more so, was the economic blow suffered by Iraq in that same period because of the drastic drop in the price of oil. In 1982, the third year of the war, Iraquis discovered that they could not wage a war and carry on with an internal development program of huge dimensions.

With brutal abruptness, the brakes were slammed on almost everything not connected with the war. In 1983-84, there was readjustment and rethinking; by 1985, a new balance had been struck between military and civilian expenditures, with development continuing but restricted to basic infrastructure.

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