BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi military stepped up its air strikes against Iranian cities Tuesday as fighting spread along the southern war front on the fifth day of a major Iranian ground offensive near Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
An Iraqi war communique issued Tuesday night said that the Iranians have sent more reinforcements across the border and that fighting has spread to an area south of Fish Lake, about three miles inside Iraqi territory. Previously, that area was reported by the Iraqis to have been cleared of Iranian positions.
The communique added, however, that the new attack has been repelled and the area again "wiped clean" of Iranian troops.
Military spokesmen said, meanwhile, that Iraqi planes bombed several Iranian cities for the fourth consecutive day, hitting Qom, Khorramabad, Esfahan, Dezful and Kermanshah with "devastating" strikes.
War communiques said Iraqi jets also raided Iranian anti-aircraft missile sites at Khorramshar on the Shatt al Arab waterway, at Bandar Khomeini on the Persian Gulf and at Kermanshah.
Retaliatory Air Strikes
Iraqi officials said the air strikes against Iranian cities were in retaliation for an Iranian missile attack on Baghdad early Tuesday morning. The missile, the second to strike the Iraqi capital in two days, fell in an area far from the trade center that the Iranians said was its intended target and "killed and wounded a number of people," an Iraqi military spokesman said.
The so-called "war of the cities," in which each side aims to sow terror by attacking the other's population centers, has claimed hundreds of civilian casualties since it resumed several days ago in the wake of a new Iranian offensive aimed at Basra, 300 miles from Baghdad in southeastern Iraq.
Heaviest hit has been Basra itself, which has come under nearly continuous Iranian artillery and missile attack since the offensive began late Thursday night.
An Iraqi military communique said four people were killed and 33 wounded in the bombardments Tuesday, raising the toll from five days of shelling to 74 killed and 368 wounded.
Normal communications with Basra appeared to have been cut or suspended Tuesday, and the status of Basra's 1 million residents was not immediately clear here in the capital. However, residents of Basra had reported Monday that large groups of civilians were trying to flee the city, which is only six miles west of the fighting.
The residents also reported that the shelling was heavy and indiscriminate and said that a hospital, a Japanese construction project and a Sheraton Hotel were among the buildings that had been hit.
Baghdad radio, in a Persian-language broadcast to Iran, warned that "all Iranian cities will be bombed" in retaliation and told Iranians to evacuate them "in order to save your lives."
The status of the ground fighting, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly harder to assess. Each side claimed new victories, with the Iranians saying they now controlled all of Fish Lake and the Iraqis saying they had repelled the fresh attacks and were continuing to "wipe out pockets of Iranian resistance."
Fish Lake, a man-made body of water less than a mile wide and 16 miles long, adjoins a large marshy area that the Iraqis have flooded to create a water barrier inside the border. At the outset of their offensive, the Iranians established footholds around the southeastern tip of the lake and on an island in the water barrier.
On Monday, the Iraqis reported that they had cleared the entire area around the lake of Iranian positions and had bottled up the remaining Iranian forces on the island. Western military experts in Baghdad said it appeared that the Iranians were now trying to retake the ground south of the water barrier in order to relieve the Iraqi pressure on their island foothold.
While it was impossible to verify the conflicting Iranian and Iraqi accounts of the battle from Baghdad, Western military experts here said the Iraqi version appeared more accurate.
"If the Iranians ever broke past Fish Lake, the Iraqis would be in really big trouble," one military expert said, noting its proximity to Basra. "However, everything that we see seems to indicate that the Iraqis are still in full control."
According to Western military analysts reached in Europe and the United States, it is far from clear which side will prevail.
One analyst noted that satellite surveillance photographs showed that, contrary to popular belief, the location of the bulk of the fighting is southeast of Basra but actually in Iranian, not Iraqi, territory.
The analyst said the confusion was due to the creation of water barriers and dams that the Iraqis built as a defensive measure. As a result, the area along the Shatt al Arab waterway is heavily flooded, and the border, which technically runs in the middle of the river, is no longer obvious.
'It Doesn't Look Too Good'