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Iran Claims Gains in Attack on Strategic Island

January 17, 1987|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Iran said its forces overran most of a strategic island near the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Friday, capturing several senior Iraqi military officers.

The reported attack, which was not mentioned in Iraqi communiques, came amid increasing signs of a stall in the fighting on the second front that Iran opened Wednesday, in the central sector of the war front near Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

In Tehran, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of Iran's Parliament, said the offensive that his country's forces began on the southern front last Friday was designed as a prelude to a long-heralded "final offensive" against Iraq.

Basra Not Targeted

Speaking at Friday prayers at Tehran University, Rafsanjani said Basra, which is Iraq's second-largest city and is only six miles west of the southern fighting, is not the target of the present drive. He said he would not disclose the target.

"We should settle accounts with Iraq near Basra," Rafsanjani said, according to news agency accounts from Tehran. "This is where the fate of the war should be determined."

Rafsanjani said the week-old Iranian attack in the south was designed to ruin Iraq's "war machine."

Tehran radio said that a "large part" of Buvarin Island, a sand bar in the Shatt al Arab waterway, was overrun Thursday night and Friday morning by Iranian forces. The broadcast said that 3,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed or wounded in the attack and 30 tanks destroyed.

The broadcast added that Iran had captured the commander of an Iraqi infantry brigade, identified as Col. Nasser Tibi, as well as four other colonels and a number of other officers.

4 Islands Overrun

Buvarin Island, which lies southeast of Basra, is one of several sand bars that have emerged in the Shatt al Arab and have been fortified by the Iraqis. They have no significance except for their proximity to Basra. The Iranians overran four such islands in an offensive begun on Christmas Day but were quickly pushed back by Iraqi forces and suffered heavy losses.

Iraq's official news agency made no mention of Buvarin but referred, as it has previously, to "tightening the noose" around the invading Iranians.

The agency reported fierce fighting in the south overnight Thursday, with Iraqi jets hitting Iranian supply lines and waves of helicopter gunships attacking Iranian troop concentrations.

"Those forces have now either to die or escape quickly," the Iraqi agency said.

Advance Stalled

On the central front, Iraq said, a third Iranian attempt to advance had been repulsed with 500 killed.

Iran acknowledged that its drive to recapture strategic border positions about 70 miles northeast of Baghdad had stalled, saying that Iranian troops had "fortified their positions in the region."

Iran fired surface-to-surface missiles at Baghdad and a town near Basra on Friday, reportedly causing heavy casualties to civilians. In response, Iraqi warplanes again attacked towns in western Iran.

In Washington, the State Department condemned Iran's occupation of Iraqi border terrority and its attempt to drive farther into the country, wire services reported.

Department spokesman Charles Redman urged Iran to join with Iraq in seeking an early negotiated settlement of their six-year war, which began when Iraq invaded Iran in September, 1980, in a dispute over the Shatt al Arab.

"I would again express our concern about the intensification of the fighting and loss of life," Redman said.

He added that fighting was continuing at Basra and that the military situation had not changed appreciably in the last 24 hours.

U.S. intelligence agencies are convinced that Iran's offensive in the south is nothing more than a probing attack, according to other Administration officials.

Pentagon officials estimated that 40,000 Iranian and 10,000 Iraqi troops have been killed or wounded in fighting around Basra since Dec. 24, when the Iranians began their latest drive in that region.

Heavier Casualties

"The Iranian dead and wounded outnumber Iraqi casualties by about 4 to 1," said one of the officials, who asked not to be identified. "We estimate that close to 20,000 Iranians have died and another 20,000 have been wounded."

According to independent estimates of war strength, Iran holds a significant advantage in troop strength, but Iraq has the edge in weaponry.

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