NICOSIA, Cyprus — Iranian troops launched another major ground attack against Iraqi forces on the southern war front Friday, seizing several border positions in heavy fighting, both combatants reported.
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, said Iranian forces mounted a two-pronged offensive early Friday morning near Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
The agency said Iranian forces pushed 2 1/2 miles into southeastern Iraqi territory at Shalamcheh, which is on the border area between Basra on the Iraqi side of the Shatt al Arab waterway and Khorramshahr on the Iranian side.
Second Iranian Attack
The agency said in reports monitored here that a second Iranian attack was launched at Kushk, about 40 miles to the north, where it said Iranian forces captured the second line of Iraqi defenses.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi high command said in a communique Friday night, about 18 hours after the fighting had begun, that the invaders had been "crushed" and the bulk of four Iranian divisions had been wiped out.
However, later communiques indicated that the Iranians had achieved a "foothold" on Iraqi territory and that some areas were still "under enemy control."
'Liquidate Certain Pockets'
A military source quoted by the Iraqi News Agency said, "What is going on now is to liquidate certain pockets and inflict further losses on the Iranians."
It appeared too early to tell whether the Iranian assault was the massive offensive that the Iranians have been threatening to unleash against Iraq for several years. However, the current fighting, about 300 miles southeast of Baghdad, is in the area that Western military analysts believe will be the target of the long-awaited "final offensive."
Most Western analysts in Baghdad think this offensive will be launched within the next two months, after the rainy season arrives. Late in coming this year, the rains should reduce Iraq's 5-to-1 advantage over Iran in aircraft and armor by reducing visibility and making the ground harder for tanks and other heavy vehicles to traverse.
The Iranians are believed to have massed more than 650,000 troops--mostly ill-equipped conscripts and paramilitary Revolutionary Guards--near the southern front of the six-year-old Persian Gulf War. The Iraqis have fewer than 500,000 men in the area, but they are well-trained and equipped with armor and sophisticated weapons.
Friday's assault was the second sizable Iranian attack on Iraqi forces defending the Basra region in little more than two weeks. On Christmas Eve, the Iraqis repelled a similar Iranian thrust across the Shatt al Arab, a few miles southeast of the present battle zone. Both sides apparently suffered substantial casualties, with the Iranians losing as many as 10,000 men, according to Western estimates.
Cling to Disused Oil Port
In all their many offensives across the river, only once, in February, 1986, have the Iranians succeeded in capturing a piece of Iraqi territory and holding it. Last February, the Iranians crossed the Shatt al Arab at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and captured the disused Iraqi oil port of Al Faw, to which they still cling despite several Iraqi attempts to dislodge them.
The territory reported captured by the Iranians on Friday, however, poses a far greater threat to the regime of President Saddam Hussein than the loss of Al Faw.
If allowed to continue, the latest Iranian initiative would directly threaten Basra. It has long been the goal of Iran's military planners to sever southern Iraq from the capital and to establish an Islamic state in the south--which is predominantly Shia Muslim, as opposed to the largely Sunni Muslim north--along the lines of the government in Iran.
The war communiques Friday spoke of heavy casualties on both sides, with Iraq saying it left "mountains of corpses" and the Iranians saying they killed 5,000 Iraqi troops. Western analysts who have followed the war tend to discount the large casualty figures as propaganda.
The Iranians also claimed to have shot down nine Iraqi warplanes during the battle, but the Iraqis acknowledged losing one jet fighter.
According to Iranian war communiques, the crossing of the Shatt al Arab was a "complicated amphibious operation," similar to the success achieved in seizing Al Faw, where fiberglass Japanese-made speedboats were used to speed Iranian reinforcements into the captured Iraqi salient.
The Iranians also claimed to have knocked out at least 15 Iraqi tanks at the outset of the fighting, a possible sign that American arms that were delivered covertly to the Iranians in the past year have been taking their toll. The United States is reported to have shipped large numbers of TOW anti-tank missiles to Tehran in an attempt to gain better relations with the regime and help obtain the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by terrorists loyal to Iran.