WORLD

Eyewitness at the front

February 9 1987
WORLD

Eyewitness at the front

February 9 1987

Eyewitness at the front

WORLD

Three weeks after Iranian forces swept across the Shatt al-Arab waterway into Iraq, the two sides remained locked in a bloody stalemate. Despite Iran ’s claim of fresh advances, Western military analysts said that Iranian soldiers—entrenched within 10 km of Basra, Iraq ’s second-largest city—had made almost no gains. Last week Maclean’s London Bureau Chief Ross Laver travelled with Iranian troops into Iraq. His report:

The Iranian soldiers had just finished their morning prayers when one of their Revolutionary Guard commanders, Mohammed Ali Hosemi, pulled out a wall-sized map of the marshland battlefield east of Basra.

“The enemy tried to keep the water level in the marshes so high that we could not invade,” said Hosemi, sheltering with reporters in an underground bunker a few kilometres from the war front.

Minutes later the Iranian commanders led us—57 foreign journalists—to buses for a grisly tour of what they said was the evidence of Iraq’s defeat. Clearly, however, that was all that the Iranians wanted us to see. To prevent us from learning the locations of Iran’s long-range artillery, the Iranians had smeared mud over the buses’ windows, leaving only a small clear patch in the windshield for the driver. They also insisted that we keep the curtains drawn at all times in the war zone.

A few kilometres inside Iranian-held Iraqi territory, the buses pulled to the

side of the road. Off in the distance we could hear the constant pounding of heavy artillery and mortar fire. “Quick, it is not safe to stay here,” one of our guides said, waving us forward to a convoy of waiting jeeps and pickup trucks. For several more minutes we drove at breakneck speed down a

dusty, potholed road before turning south along the ridge of a 15-foot-high dirt embankment. Fortified with concrete-block bunkers and as much as 30 yards of barbed wire on either side, the embankment had formed one of the principal Iraqi lines of defence. Now, with the Iraqis pushed back to the western edge of Fish Lake, a manmade channel about 18 miles long and half a mile wide, the embankment marked the forward limit of the Iranian advance. All around us plumes of black smoke were rising from the marshes. “It took the Iraqis five years to build this road,” one of our guides shouted as Iranian and Iraqi gunners lobbed shells back and forth over our heads. He smiled as he pointed to a thicket of freshly painted signs that the victorious Iranian troops had erected. They read Down With Sad-

dam, denouncing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and Death To Israel.

Further south we reached the scene of some of the worst bloodletting of the offensive. In all of the other zones we visited that day Iranian bulldozers had already buried the corpses to prepare the ground for advancing troops.

But the Iranians had preserved a macabre display of slaughtered Iraqi soldiers for the Western news media, and the stench of rotting flesh hung heavy over the battlefield. Most of the corpses lay battered and shrivelled in a shallow trench along the top of the embankment. There were bodies without legs, legs without torsos, bodies twisted and charred from the blast of exploding shells. As flies buzzed around the bod| ies, young Iranian Revo-

0 lutionary Guards, mem| bers of the 250,000-man E army corps formed by 1 the Ayatollah Ruhollah 2 Khomeini in 1979, Beavit enged through Iraqi 2 supply bags and mess £ kits for souvenirs. One bearded infantryman pocketed an Iraqi sol-

dier’s diary, written in Arabic, then grinned and flashed a V-for-victory sign at a passing reporter.

Then Hosemi described how, in a massive threeweek assault that culminated on Jan. 12, the

Iranians had shattered Iraq’s formidable defences and forced the Iraqis to retreat to within 10 km of Basra. “We encircled them in an area measuring four square miles,” he said proudly, “which we turned into a slaughterhouse for Iraqis.”

Along the side of the road we saw the remains of scores of burned-out tanks and armored personnel carriers, many riddled with dents from machine-gun fire. Dozens more lay partly submerged in the swampy terrain surrounding the fortifications, already showing signs of rust. The Iranians who were with us claimed that 550 Iraqi tanks and personnel carriers had been destroyed in the fighting, along with 60 planes and five helicopters. Like many Iranian claims, those numbers were almost certainly exaggerated, military experts said. But it was obvious that the dug-in Iraqi troops had suffered heavy losses while attempting to repel the invaders.

At every stop on the battlefield Ira-

nian troops rushed over to our convoy to chant victory slogans and show off their newly captured positions. “I am fighting for the dignity of Islam,” said Mustafa Haidari, 22, who wore a red headband painted with a slogan that read Nobody Is Greater Than Allah. Speaking through a translator, Haidari said that he had volunteered for the

war in 1984 and had spent three months in training before being sent to the front. Both his brother and a cousin had been killed in the recent offensive, he added. Another soldier, Sadat Hus-

sein, said that the Iranians had no quarrel with the Iraqi people, mostly Shiite Moslems like themselves, members of a sect that had broken away from mainstream Islam 13 centuries ago. Added Hussein: “It is the system that we are fighting. They are unbelievers who are doing nothing for the cause of Islam.” Indeed, many of the recruits

echoed Khomeini’s denunciation of Iraq’s Soviet-backed secular regime.

Later the Iranians drove us to a prisoner-of-war camp on the outskirts of Ahwaz, an Iranian oil centre about 40

km northeast of the fighting zone. About 1,500 Iraqis, many of them barefoot and dressed in torn and faded fatigues, sat cross-legged in neat rows on the rocky ground chanting, “Khomeini is great” and “Saddam is the enemy of Allah”—slogans that brought smiles to the faces of their Iranian captors.

None of the Iranians we met was willing to discuss reports that their success in the field was partly achieved with the use of U.S.-made Hawk antiaircraft missiles. The Reagan administration sent Iran at least 235 of the radar-guided missiles last year in an apparent effort to encourage better relations with Tehran and to secure the release of U.S. hostages being held by pro-Iranian groups in Beirut. But one of the captured Iraqis, pilot 1st Lieut. Abdul Ali Mohammed Fahd, said that he was on a bombing mission over Iranian-held territory when his MiG 23-BN fighter was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. He added that because of Iran’s sophisticated air defences, Iraqi fighters were unable to strike at Iranian field positions. Instead, they concentrated their attacks on civilian targets, including Esfahan, Dezful and the Shiite holy city of Qom.

The Iranians were also reluctant to discuss their own losses, but most experts said that the figures far surpassed those of Iraq. According to one Western diplomat in Tehran, the two offensives that Iran launched between Christmas Eve and mid-January, codenamed Karbala-4 and Karbala-5, claimed the lives of 7,000 Iraqis and 17,000 Iranians—a lopsided toll that reflected Iraq’s three-to-one advantage in armored vehicles and artillery.

But clearly the battle for the Shatt al-Arab river basin was far from over. Throughout our two-day tour of the war zone we witnessed constant artillery duels, and at night the skies were lit with repeated explosions. All week Hercules C-130 cargo planes ferried back and forth between the oil centre of Ahwaz and Tehran, removing the dead and wounded, and bringing in fresh supplies of ammunition and troops. But in spite of the high casualty rate, the Iranians sounded more convinced than ever that they were close to victory over Iraq. “Saddam Hussein has assured his friends in the United States that no one would be able to break through their defensive lines,” said Mohammed Ali Reza, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards. “But the speed and power of our Moslem combatants was much greater than the enemy had expected. Soon the world will witness an even greater defeat of Iraq.” Even as he spoke, the death toll in the marshlands east of Basra kept rising.^