NICOSIA, Cyprus — The deployment of fresh troops in the Iran-Iraq War has become a custom at this time of year, an annual harbinger of the carnage to come.
The summer heat, which turns the Iran-Iraq battlefield into a griddle, has dissipated. Winter rains have begun softening the ground, giving foot soldiers an advantage against tanks and armored cars, and so new troops are dispatched.
This year is no different. According to Western diplomats in the region, Iran is moving about 270,000 poorly trained but highly motivated basiji, or volunteers, to the front. They are being concentrated near the Iraqi city of Basra, the scene of Iran's last, largely unsuccessful, offensive in January.
'Big Thump Coming'
"A major push is on," a Western diplomat in Kuwait said. "I'd estimate that in a maximum of four weeks, the Iranians will try an offensive. There is a big thump coming."
But other analysts believe that Iran may be more cautious this time, having sacrificed great numbers of men last January with little to show for it. Also, internal political disputes appear to be undermining the Iranian leadership's consensus for an all-out push against Iraq.
Gary Sick, who was President Jimmy Carter's chief adviser on Iran, commented recently:
"I'd be very surprised if the Iranians go with a big offensive as they did last year. Iranian strategy appears designed to keep the Iraqis stretched thin, aiming at a series of smaller offensives."
Iranian intentions are rarely easy to forecast, particularly now, for the government in Tehran has been sending mixed signals.
Iranian radio broadcasts have been sounding a martial drumbeat for weeks, calling for volunteers for a new offensive. The Iranian Supreme Military Council is even said to have approved a 10-point plan for the attack.
But at the same time, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful Speaker of Parliament, has said publicly that the coming battle will not be a jihad, or holy war, and cannot even be construed as a new stage in the war.
The battlefield preparations are taking place against the backdrop of faltering efforts by the United Nations to impose a cease-fire on the two countries, which have been at war since 1980.
Arms Embargo Weighed
The U.N. Security Council called for a cease-fire in July, but Iran has refused to accept it unless Iraq is condemned as the aggressor. U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar acknowledged after weeks of negotiations that no progress had been achieved, and he strongly implied that measures such as an arms embargo may be necessary to force Iranian acceptance of a cease-fire.
"The determination of the Security Council to stand by its own resolution is essential if respect is to be maintained for the authority of the council, on which the reputation of the the organization and the well-being of the international community depend," Perez de Cuellar said in a report last week.
Many observers have suggested that the U.N. initiative is doomed to collapse the moment the Iranian offensive begins. And some think that Iran was keen to promote a peaceful settlement but then changed its mind.
"The leadership appears to have taken a decision that Iran has to go its own way," Sick said in a telephone interview.
Last January, the Iranians and the Iraqis fought for several weeks around Basra. The Iranians managed to penetrate to within 10 miles of the city but were stopped by Iraq's intricate defense system of dikes and waterways backed by tanks and heavy artillery.
Tens of thousands of men were lost on both sides, but when the battle was over, most analysts credited Iraq with a victory for preventing the Iranians from breaking through the rows of concentric defenses around the city.
In the preparations for the forthcoming offensive, the two sides line up pretty much as before: Iraq appears to have a great advantage in tanks and other weaponry, and Iran has an advantage in terms of sheer manpower.
"Everybody is poised for an offensive in the next month," said Andrew Duncan, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Everyone also expects, much as before, lots of casualties with no significant gains."
Iran Has New Weapon
One diplomat in the region cited reports that Iran has one new advantage--155-millimeter "Long Tom" artillery pieces with a range of about 20 miles, meaning that they could reach deep into Iraqi territory.
Another analyst commented: "At this point, if the Iranians were to capture Basra, it would be almost anti-climactic. Iraq could carry on the war. I think the Iranians are stuck and don't know what to do."
Because of the staggering numbers of casualties--more than 1 million dead--and the use of poison gas, the Iran-Iraq War has been compared to World War I. And, like that war, the Iran-Iraq conflict has evolved into trench warfare--and stalemate.