Sunday, August 06, 2006

Iran-Iraq War, 1981

The Great War for Civilization

by Robert Fisk

Dezful was the first major Iraqi defeat. In a blinding sandstorm, 120,000 Iranian troops, Revolutionary Guards and Basiji (mobilised) volunteers plunged through the desert towards the Iraqi lines in late March 1981, taking 15,000 Iraqi soldiers prisoner, capturing 30 tanks and armoured vehicles and recovering 4,000 square kilometres of Iranian territory. When I reached the scene of the Iranian victory, an almost total silence enveloped the battlefield. There were wild roses beside the roads south of Dezful and giant ants scuttled over the desert floor. Iranian artillerymen sat beneath their anti-aircraft gun canopies, glancing occasionally at the empty sky. The smashed tanks of the Iraqi army's 3rd Armoured Division, disembowelled by rocket fire, their armour peeled back as if by a can-opener, lay in the mid-afternoon heat, memorials already to what the dismissive Iranians insisted on calling "Operation Obvious Victory."

The silence of the desert indicated both the extent of Iran's success and the extraordinary fact that with scarcely a shot fired in return, the Iranian army had halted its advance along a geometrically straight line about 65 kilometres in length. It stretched from a ridge of hills north-west of Dezful to the swamps of Sendel, where Iraqi tanks and armoured carriers lay axle-deep in mud, driven there in frustration and fear by Saddam's retreating forces. The Iranians--at one point scarcely 5 kilometres from the Iraqi border--had effectively declared a halt to offensive action in the Dezful sector, forbidden to advance, on Khomeini's orders, across the international frontier.

Colonel Beyrouz Suliemanjar of the Iranian 21st Infantry Division was quite specific when he spoke to us, baton in hand, in his dark underground command post beneath a ridge of low hills. "According to the Imam's guidance," he stated with military confidence, "we are not allowed to cross the border." He patted a blue, straggling river on his polythene-covered map. "Our troops could cross this last river but our Imam will not let them. Our strategic aim is to push the enemy troops back to their territory. But we will not cross the frontier." Whenever the colonel spoke--with apparent modesty--about the surprise attack on 22 March, his junior officers along with a mullah, standing at the back of the dugout, chorused, "God is great--Down with America--Down with the Soviet Union." No military briefing could ever have been quite like this.

Khomeini had already promised that his armies would not invade neighbouring countries. Hojatolislam Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the Majlis speaker, had given his word that Iran "harbours no territorial ambition against Iraq." All Iran wanted, according to Rafsanjani, was the satisfaction of four demands: the expulsion of Iraqi troops from all Iranian territory; "punishment of the aggressor"; compensation for war damage; and the return of war refugees to their homes. "Punishment of the aggressor," the Iranians made clear, meant the overthrow of Saddam Hussein--something that neither the Arabs nor the Americans would permit.