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Iran, Iraq Boast of Advances in Gulf War but No Major Breakthrough Is Expected

April 11, 1987|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — Both Iran and Iraq claimed Friday to have made new advances in the Persian Gulf War, while Western military analysts said the latest battle is shaping up as a grinding confrontation aimed at consuming enemy troops while not achieving any significant breakthrough.

The official Iranian news agency said Iranian forces have captured an Iraqi road used to move supplies from Baghdad, the capital, southeast to the beleaguered city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

The news agency said Iraq has sustained 8,000 casualties in the four-day-old offensive, which it calls Karbala 8 after a city in Iraq that is sacred to Shia Muslims. There was no report on Iran's losses.

7,000 Reported Killed

According to Iraq's official news agency, 10 divisions of Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been wiped out in the fighting east of Basra. The Iraqi agency said 7,000 Iranians have been killed in the fighting and hundreds more wounded.

The agency also said that Iraq's forces had repulsed an Iranian probe to the north, along the central front east of Baghdad, killing or wounding 1,500 Iranians in 24 hours of fierce fighting.

Western analysts said the scope of the fighting on the southern front east of Basra is not yet clear but that it appears to involve a major commitment by both sides.

One analyst said satellite photographs indicate that the Iranians began a three-pronged offensive four days ago and that by Thursday night two of the prongs had been turned back by the Iraqis.

Defenders Outflanked

However, the northernmost column of Iranian troops appears to have outflanked the main body of Iraqi defenders and penetrated for about a mile through the Iraqi lines, moving northwest across the Jasim River toward Basra.

One analyst described Iran's strategy in the 6 1/2-year-old war as "an eroding, crippling military doctrine" aimed at chewing up Iraqi manpower. The Iranians have three times as many people as Iraq and are presumed to be better able to absorb casualties. Iraq has the advantage in military hardware.

"The Iraqis have to kill three to four Iranians for every man they lose," said Maj. Bob Elliott of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "It's going to cost the Iraqis. They've got to beat the Iranians on the ground."

Elliott said the primary Iranian goal now appears to be causing maximum Iraqi casualties.

"Anything they capture is gravy," he said.

Elliott said he doubts that there will ever be a "final offensive" of the sort that Iran has been predicting for some time. Rather, he said, the Iranians will continue to carry out surprise attacks in an attempt to catch the Iraqis off guard.

Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the gulf war at Eaton Analytical Services in Washington, said the Iranian strategy appears to be succeeding.

"The overall impact is day by day," he said. "Iraq is not scoring enough casualties to win a war of attrition. If it keeps up like this, Iraq is going to lose the city."

Heavy Aircraft Losses

Among Iraq's weaknesses, Cordesman cited heavy air force losses in the last offensive, failure of Iraqi artillery to inflict much damage on the Iranians and failure of the Iraqi high command to counterattack successfully.

"It's an extremely dangerous situation," he said. "People look at kill ratios and lack of dramatic progress (by Iran) and misunderstand the problem."

William J. Olson, an expert on the gulf region at the U.S. Army War College, takes a more optimistic view of Iraq's situation. Olson said many Western experts misunderstand the nature of a war of attrition and believe, mistakenly, that it will be decided on the battlefield.

"For a war of attrition to be a war-winning strategy, it must have its effect on the nation as a whole," he said. "That's almost impossible to predict."

He said that Iranian casualties have run three times higher than Iraqi losses, roughly in line with their populations. And this, he said, gives Iran no great advantage.

Replacements Available

He said that between 50,000 and 100,000 young Iraqis are reaching military age every year, and added that "Iran hasn't begun to inflict the kind of casualties that will prevent Iraq from replacing its losses."

Olson played down the effect the loss of Basra would have on the war, saying it is far from clear that the loss of the city would cause the collapse of the Iraqi government.

"There is no reason to assume Iraq will wilt and drift away because of developments on the front," Olson said. "The decisive factor for both countries is the battle for the hearts and minds of the people."

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