WASHINGTON — "Ten thousand dead in a week, almost 30,000 dead in three weeks," said an awed State Department official. "The battle for Basra has been about the bloodiest since Verdun."
In fact, Verdun, the nine-month World War I battle for the French fortress that cost almost one million dead and wounded, still far exceeds the casualties in Iran's assault on the southeastern Iraqi city of Basra.
But the impact of the battle for Basra on the Iran-Iraq War, now in its seventh year, could be enormous. If Basra, astride the historic invasion route from Persia to Baghdad and other Arab lands to the west, falls to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's suicidal Revolutionary Guards, it would shake the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein and reverberate to the Arab sheikdoms around the Persian Gulf.
That dramatic outcome now appears unlikely, according to U.S. officials and private analysts, even though officials here said that 100,000 to 200,000 of Basra's one million residents have fled, some helped by the Iraqi army for the first time.
Even if Iran does not overrun Basra, however, it has greatly improved its political position just by drawing within six to 10 miles of its objective. Iran's success is expected to open the floodgates for other nations--from Argentina and Brazil to China and South Korea--to sell weapons to Iran in large quantities, several officials said.
"The view of specialists last fall was that Iran was on the ropes and it was just a matter of time before it accepted the peace offers from Iraq," said William B. Quandt, a Brookings Institution authority on the Middle East who served on the National Security Council staff in the Administration of President Jimmy Carter. "No one feels that way now. The impression is that Iran is on a roll."
Both Iranian and Iraqi forces are regrouping south of Basra, where the fierce fighting is focused on a narrow sandy neck only a few miles wide. It lies between two bodies of water, Fish Lake and the Shatt al Arab waterway.
Each side has about 200,000 troops, including, on the Iranian side, the many 14- and 15-year-old boys in Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards. But the geography permits far fewer--perhaps only 10,000 on each side--to actually engage in battle at any one time, according to an intelligence official.
The Iraqis are expected to attempt a new counterattack soon to push the Iranians back from the fortifications that form the gateway to the port city. But new Iranian assaults are predicted this week during the summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Kuwait, which is near besieged Basra. Khomeini had condemned the summit in advance and warned Kuwait not to host it. A number of pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon have threatened action against Kuwait if the conference opens as scheduled.
The Iranian offensive against Basra, which the Pentagon dates from Christmas Eve, may have been partly intended to discourage attendance at the summit or at least to warn moderate and conservative Muslim leaders at the meeting against taking part in any anti-Iranian actions. Despite this, however, Syria and Libya, two of Khomeini's allies, reportedly plan to attend the conference.
More likely, however, the offensive--named "Karbala 5" after one of two major Shia shrines in Iraq--demonstrates Khomeini's continuing determination to punish Iraq for its invasion of Iran in September, 1980, when Iraq sought to capitalize on the chaos in Iran caused by the recent fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and Khomeini's takeover.
Now, Khomeini has pushed Iraq out of his territory, but he has long set as his minimal goal the ouster of Hussein as Iraqi leader.
At various times, Khomeini has also called for overthrow of Iraq's ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims. Most Iraqis are Shia Muslims, as are Khomeini and most of his countrymen, although the Iranians are Persians and the Iraqis are Arabs.
Billions in Reparations
The ayatollah also has demanded tens of billions of dollars in reparations for the war.
Iran's conditions for ending the war would probably ease, several experts said, when the 87-year-old Khomeini departs--but he has a sibling who is alive at 95.
But Nikola Schahgaldian of the Rand Corp. believes that no successor in Iran could make peace before Iranian forces drive as deep into Iraq--35 miles--as Iraq had driven into Iran earlier in the war. By that calculation, Iranian troops would have to occupy Basra just as Iraqis had taken over the Iranian city of Khorramshahr.
Capturing Basra would also cut Iraq's major arms supply route from Kuwait through Basra to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Beyond Basra, Iran might also want to push into southern Iraq, where Shia shrines as well as rich oil fields are located.