BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi military reported Monday that thousands of Iranian troops launched a new wave of attacks near the beleaguered port city of Basra overnight but were driven back in heavy fighting.
Intelligence estimates of the latest fighting on the southern front of the Persian Gulf War varied widely, with some Washington officials minimizing Iran's recent gains and some military analysts here in the Iraqi capital suggesting that the latest Iranian assault represents a serious threat to Iraq.
Iran reported that its invasion force had broken through Iraqi defenses and was driving toward Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. The official Iranian news agency added that the capture of four more islands in the Shatt al Arab waterway was "imminent."
Iraq, however, asserted that its troops had the Iranians bottled up in marshland east of Basra. And it reported "destructive raids" by its air force on six cities in Iran, the 11th day its warplanes had bombed enemy cities.
An Iraqi war communique said that "an estimated eight divisions" of paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guards launched human-wave attacks on Iraqi lines southeast of Basra in an attempt to expand the bridgehead they have established east and south of the city. "A fierce battle took place" in which Iraqi forces "gallantly wiped out recurring enemy waves and stood fast in their positions," the communique said.
The communique offered no other details of the latest fighting in the south, which erupted 11 days ago when the Iranians succeeded in crossing a large water barrier about six miles due east of Basra to establish a bridgehead behind man-made Fish Lake. Since then, the Iranians appear to have widened their bridgehead southward to the Shatt al Arab waterway, where they claimed to have captured three small islands and are said now to besieging a fourth, called Umm al Rassas. A few miles southeast of Fish Lake, Umm al Rassas was the site of an abortive Iranian offensive over Christmas.
In Washington, wire services quoted Administration officials as saying the major change in the situation "has been in the tone of the communiques from both sides" and in a more intensive shelling of Basra.
One official, who has followed the intelligence reports on an hourly basis since the start of the current Iranian offensive, said: "Iran has not made any significant gains. The Iranians have suffered heavy unit losses. The Iranian forces are not moving on Basra from the south."
U.S. officials said the current southern offensive is smaller than the Iranian drive against the city of Al Faw in February, 1986, when U.S. intelligence estimated that 60,000 Iranian troops were committed. The estimate for the current campaign is, according to one U.S. official, "35,000 Iranian troops, plus or minus 10,000."
One U.S. official said the fighting, although sporadically intense, appears to be more a "war of communiques" than a major offensive. The U.S. intelligence reports also caution that the situation remains unpredictable and suggest that the fighting could reach a larger scale.
Difference of Opinion
Here in Baghdad, there was considerable difference of opinion as to the war outlook. Western military observers, while agreeing that the Iranians may not actually be about to capture Basra, said the invaders have significantly consolidated their position east of the city.
One analyst said that the Iranians--who have shelled the eastern outskirts of Basra for some time--now have enlarged their area of bombardment and are shelling the western reaches of the city. This indicates, he said, that they have strengthened their beachhead and brought up heavy guns.
Even if the invaders fail to capture Basra, said another observer here in Baghdad, they have succeeded in terrorizing the city, causing nearly 600 civilian casualties and forcing the evacuation of most of its population of 1 million--and have established a foothold in the most heavily defended sector of Iraq. If nothing else, he said, this represent a significant psychological victory.
Island's Fall Predicted
Iranian war communiques Monday night claimed that Umm al Rassas was on the verge of falling. Iraqi military spokesmen denied this but indirectly confirmed that the Iranians were attacking the island by saying that the Iraqi army's 7th Corps was now also engaged in heavy fighting along with the 3rd Corps. The 3rd Corps is responsible for defending the area east and northeast of Basra, including Fish Lake, while the 7th Corps holds the area south and southeast of the city, including Umm al Rassas and several other islands in the Shatt al Arab.
Basra itself came under more Iranian artillery fire Monday, which killed one person and injured seven others, an Iraqi military spokesman said.
In the air war, Iraq said its warplanes again raided the Iranian towns of Dezful, Tabriz, Esfahan, Qom and Kermanshah, "reducing their targets to wreckage."
Military analysts said the Iraqi air blitz may increase pressure on Iran's leaders to launch a long-promised "final offensive" for victory in the war, which began in September, 1980.
Several key figures in Tehran have indicated that the invasion, which began Jan. 9 with Basra as its main target, will continue "until victory."
King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, an Iraqi ally, voiced concern Monday over the latest escalation in the war. The king said Saudi Arabia will defend its territory "with all available means" against any spillover from the conflict.