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Ancient Port of Sinbad : Iraqi City of Basra, Near Front, Iran's No. 1 Target

January 04, 1987|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — The Luay nightclub was packed to capacity on New Year's Eve. A morose-looking band played Arabic music while a swarthy belly dancer performed on a small stage to the enthusiastic cheers of the all-male audience.

No one seemed to mind that the dancer, attired in a black-and-silver, sequin-studded gown, looked something like the Michelin Man in drag. Good nightclub talent is scarce in the seventh year of Iraq's war with Iran.

Besides, the people of Basra had something special to celebrate this New Year's Eve. Only a week earlier and barely 10 miles away, the Iraqi army had repelled an attempt by the Iranians to storm across the Shatt al Arab waterway and gain a foothold in Iraq.

Closest to Front Lines

Basra is Iraq's second-largest city, with a population of about 1 million. Situated on the southeastern tip of Iraq, only minutes by car from the frontier with Iran, it is the closest major Iraqi population center to the front lines.

Apart from an occasional missile attack, Baghdad, the Iraqi capital 300 miles northwest of Basra, has been largely insulated from the rigors of war. But here in this seaport on the Shatt al Arab, famed as the place from which Sinbad the Sailor set forth on his journeys in "The Arabian Nights," the war is a fact of life.

Periodic Iranian artillery attacks over the years have left their mark. Here and there, rows of neat white houses are broken by gaping holes--resembling from afar a child's smile with a few front teeth missing.

Sandbags Line Walls

Sandbag walls line nearly every street, shielding shop windows and entrances from shrapnel. On New Year's Eve, several shells landed in a residential area of Basra, killing one person and setting a house on fire, according to a military communique.

Iraqi strategists believe that Iran's most pressing military objective now is to capture Basra, for its fall would be a devastating blow to the Iraqi war effort. If the city of Sinbad should ever fall to Iran, with it would go Iraq's only outlet to the sea and its one overland link to neighboring Kuwait and the rest of the Persian Gulf.

For months now, Iran has been threatening to launch a so-called "final offensive" aimed at achieving its declared objective of overthrowing the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein and securing "total victory" in the long gulf war.

No 'Final Offensive' Yet

But despite a massive mobilization of troops--Western analysts believe the Iranians now have more than 700,000 soldiers poised along the 730-mile-long frontier--the final offensive has failed to materialize, and a growing number of military analysts are beginning to doubt that it will. For while Iran has a clear advantage over Iraq in terms of manpower--its population of 45 million is three times greater than Iraq's--the Iranians have neither the heavy weaponry nor the logistical aptitude to sustain a major, full-scale offensive, the analysts say.

So the betting now is that Iran will focus its efforts on Basra in hopes of severing Iraq's strategic southeastern tip from the rest of the country. While the Iraqi government is dominated by Muslims from the minority Sunni sect, the southeast is populated mostly by Shia Muslims, the same sect that rules in Iran. Thus if the Iranians were to capture Basra, one scenario holds that they would set up a Shia mini-state there and use it as a base from which to spread the Iranian revolution north into the rest of Iraq and south into the gulf states.

Even if that did not happen--and there is considerable evidence to suggest that Iraq's majority Shias care no more for Iranian fundamentalism than its Sunnis do--the loss of Basra would have a devastating impact on the morale and perhaps the political stability of the Iraqi regime, analysts say.

Formidable Defenses

Not surprisingly, then, Basra's defenses are formidable. The bleak and sandy terrain around the city has been transformed by bulldozers into a moonscape of grotesque mounds and horseshoe-shaped walls that serve as tank, artillery and missile emplacements. Fields of barbed wire and a long earthen wall dotted with tanks guard the southern approaches to the city, while the Iraqis have flooded the marshes that lie above Basra to prevent the Iranians from descending on the city from the northwest.

Still, when the Iranians stormed across the mouth of the Shatt al Arab and seized the Iraqi oil terminal of Faw last February, it gave the populace of Basra a collective case of the jitters. The collapse of Faw, about 70 miles southeast of Basra on the Persian Gulf, gave the Iranians a foothold on the Iraqi side of the Shatt al Arab and made the people of Basra feel that much more hemmed in.

Under these circumstances, the Iraqi army's victory in the recent fighting east and southeast of Basra was a much needed boost to morale. Hoping to widen their foothold in Iraqi territory, the Iranians struck at three points along a 20-mile front but were driven back with heavy casualties after a night and a day of fighting.

Primed for Good Time

Thus, periodic shelling or no, people were primed for a good time in the Luay nightclub and dozens of other steamy establishments like it in Basra on New Year's Eve.

Tough-looking young men crowded around the tables, swilling beer and whiskey sold by the bottle, clapping their hands to the music and filling the air with so much cigarette smoke that the giant "No Smoking" sign at one end of the room was hardly visible. A bevy of Iraqi "hostesses" stood in formidable formation around the bar, drawing lascivious glances from knots of off-duty soldiers.

A moment before midnight, the houselights were doused and the countdown to 1987 began. When the lights blazed on again, the men leaped from their chairs and jumped onto the stage, from which the belly dancer thought it wise to retreat as everyone shouted and danced and waved their arms in wild abandon. For a few minutes at least, the war was forgotten and everyone in this sad and battle-scarred city had a good time.

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