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Iranian, Iraqi Armies Clash Near Basra

December 21, 1987|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Iran and Iraq reported Sunday that their armies had clashed near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, but the reports differed sharply about the outcome of the fighting.

It was difficult to determine the exact scope of the clashes from the vague communiques issued by the two sides, but they suggested that the fighting, although serious, was on a relatively small scale.

Western military analysts have been reporting for several weeks that Iran has carried out a buildup of volunteers--who are known as basiji --southeast of Basra. They predicted a major offensive in the next month aimed at capturing Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

The analysts also predicted that Iran would begin the campaign with a series of feints aimed at throwing the Iraqis off balance and also at drawing troops away from the defense of Basra.

Based on the official versions of the latest fighting, the clash may have been such a feint.

First word of the fighting came from Iraq, which said that its forces had repelled an Iranian attack by an estimated two brigades--about 5,000 to 7,000 men--in the Al Zubaidat area north of Basra.

An Iraqi communique released in Baghdad said "the bulk of enemy units" were destroyed, but no exact casualty figures were given.

"The Khomeinists are going to face the same fate, irrespective of the magnitude of troops they dispatch, each time they (undertake aggression) upon Iraq," the English-language communique said, referring to followers of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

For its part, Iran said that four Iraqi battalions were 50% to 80% destroyed by the fighting Saturday night, adding that all Iranian forces returned safely to their bases in Iran after the "blitz operation."

IRNA, the official Iranian news agency, said that heavy casualties were suffered by the Iraqis and denied Iraq's claim that it destroyed two Iranian brigades.

It is impossible to independently verify the accuracy of the claims.

What appeared to be most significant was the fact that heavy ground fighting in the war has resumed after an interval of nearly nine months. Iran and Iraq have been fighting since September, 1980, and losses on both sides are believed to total more than 1 million men killed and wounded.

The Iranians traditionally have used the winter months to launch attacks against Iraq because the season's rains tend to give infantrymen an advantage against Iraq's vast advantage in tanks.

The Iraqis have heavily fortified the area around Basra. In the same region earlier this year, Iran hurled hundreds of thousands of troops in "human wave assaults," advancing to within 10 miles of Basra but failing to capture the city.

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