COVER

THE CHILD WARRIORS

Ross Laver May 14 1984
COVER

THE CHILD WARRIORS

Ross Laver May 14 1984

THE CHILD WARRIORS

COVER

Ross Laver

The French-built Iraqi Super Etendard fighter-bomber approached its target at a speed of about 575 m.p.h. High above the Persian Gulf the jet’s radar locked onto an Iranian warship as the vessel neared an Iraqi port. When the warplane was within a 40mile radius of its quarry, the pilot programmed the ship’s range and bearing into a computerized Exocet AM 39 missile launcher, fired the weapon and turned for home. Then the attack missile’s sophisticated guidance system took over. Travelling at just less than the speed of sound, the French-built Exocet streaked to the water’s surface and skimmed three yards above the waves on the way to its destination. About four minutes after launching, the missile destroyed its target. Neither Iraq nor Iran—which never admits any attacks on its vessels—would estimate the casualties.

With devastating precision Iraqi

fighter pilots last week stepped up their country’s three-month campaign to disrupt shipping in the vital Persian Gulf oil lanes through which 20 per cent of the non-Communist world’s crude petroleum passes. But as the war between the two states intensifies, Iran’s numerical strength on land increasingly balances Iraq’s unquestioned superiority in the air and on the seas. Along the 1,180-km common border Iran has mobilized an estimated 600,000 troops—many thousands of whom are inexperienced schoolboys—for what some diplomats in Baghdad believe will be a massive offensive to capture the Iraqi city of Basra, the country’s only seaport on the gulf, and occupy part of the strategic highway to Baghdad. At the same time, there are indications that Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 84, may be exploring ways to end the 44-month-old struggle, which some military analysts compare with the First World War because of its brutal, backward nature and its astonishingly high casualty toll. All previous attempts to negotiate a

settlement have foundered on Khomeini’s insistence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, 47, step down. But recently the speaker of the Iranian Majlis (parliament), Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has spoken of reparations as a basic peace condition without also demanding Hussein’s overthrow.

Pressing: Indeed, the prospect of an eventual peace agreement may be the reason that Khomeini has so far declined to launch a “final” offensive. Arab diplomatic sources claim that there is now a major debate in Tehran about whether to launch the longthreatened Persian offensive, codenamed Dawn Six. In one camp the military clerics who helped bring the ayatollah to power are pressing for an allout march on Baghdad, which would eliminate Hussein’s secular and Socialist government. But the army hierarchy is resisting the clerics’ pressure, insisting that the war’s cost in men and machines is already too high. Senior military officials are also concerned that if the troops failed to break

through Iraq’s defences, Tehran’s bargaining position at any future peace talks would be weakened.

Such fears may be justified not only because Iraq’s army possesses firepower that the Iranians cannot match but also because of the possibility of battle weariness among Iran’s ragtag, fervently religious forces. One of the most troubling aspects of the endless war of attrition has been the staggering cost in human lives—especially the lives of Iran’s underage but fanatical boy soldiers. Gulf war statistics about casualties and the ages of those killed are notoriously unreliable. But Western analysts contend that thousands of teenage Iranian warriors have died in recent months in kamikaze-like attacks on Iraq’s heavily fortified positions.

Once enlisted, young Iranian soldiers face a treacherous future. With little or no military training—and with assault rifles many can barely carry—the teenage revolutionaries’ task is to walk through the Iraqi minefields in advance of Iranian tanks or infantry, setting off mines by poking them

with sticks or jumping on them. Not surprisingly, Tehran’s streets are filled with boys in wheelchairs, on crutches or without legs. One of the more fortunate soldiers, Yadallah Karani, 14, wearing runners and a red headband, proclaimed, “I am a soldier of Allah.” He said that he had fought at the front twice and that he was preparing to go again. And Jafar Jamsedi, 13, said he signed up because “It is my duty to fight for Islam.”

Martyrs: Western diplomats in Tehran are sharply divided on whether the tide of young recruits is a result of conscription or genuine revolutionary zeal.

Officially, military service in Iran is compulsory at age 18, but Khomeini himself has encouraged younger recruits to sign up by suggesting that those who join the fighting become heroes of the revolution and martyrs for Islam. Indeed, about 45 per cent of Iran’s 42 million citizens are 14 or under, and many of them display a passionate loyalty to Khomeini. The martyrs’ families also benefit: aside from the glory, parents who lose their sons in the war qualify

for “martyr’s cards,” entitling them to extra food rations and other privileges. Many of the boys come from poor villages or slum families; others are orphans who have no place else to go.

Still, Iranian authorities deny that the child warriors exist. Although there is no Geneva convention on the acceptable age of a soldier, the United Nations subcommission on human rights issued a scathing report last September that called on Iran to stop recruiting children. The ayatollah responded with an angry note to the subcommittee that said Iran “categorically rejects suggestions that the use of children in its armed forces is an established practice or one that is encouraged by it.”

Even the evidence of hundreds of Iranian teenagers in Iraq’s prisoner of war camps does not inhibit the denials. Tehran officials say the Iranian children held by Iraq—according to the allSwiss International Committee of the Red Cross, there are more than 750 of them under 18—were among thousands of civilians deported by Iraqi authorities in the early stage of the war.

Alarm: A peaceful conclusion to the war would solve that problem and many others, including the West’s anxieties over its oil supplies. Until recently, oilimporting nations could take comfort from the fact that supplies have continued to flow. Then, two months ago, Hussein sent waves of alarm through

North America, Western Europe and Japan by threatening an air attack on Kharg Island, Iran’s biggest oil-exporting terminal. Should he carry out the threat, Khomeini has pledged that Iran will retaliate by blockading the 30mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly nine million barrels of crude oil from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran are shipped each day. That, in turn, would achieve a wider strategic goal for Hussein by forcing the United States to abandon its neutral stance in the gulf dispute and intervene against Iran to protect supplies (page 49). But most analysts say that Tehran probably could not enforce the blockade for long, in part because Iran itself would suffer a heavy financial loss if oil shipments to the West were cut off. Iraq, too, is wary of acting precipitously. Its warplanes have repeatedly strafed ships sailing to and from the Iranian port of Bandar Khomeini, but so far they have not pierced Kharg Island’s defences. Said Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz: “We will reach the result by accumulation. Every day that passes, our ability to hit Iranian interests will improve.”

Each side in the conflict has kept the extent of its casualties secret, but it is clear that the war has exacted a heavy price. What is often called the “forgotten war,” the struggle has claimed as many as 150,000 Iraqi lives, according to diplomatic observers, and perhaps twice as many Iranians.

Sacred: Both sides attempt to justify the carnage by pointing to a higher purpose. In Iran the war forms part of a sacred mission to export revolution until an Islamic empire, guided by the Koran, stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The mullahs see in Hussein all that they despise: a secular leader of a Moslem population. Hussein is also a Sunni Moslem in a country that is 60-per-cent Shi’ite—the dominant sect in Iran. As Khomeini told his followers earlier this year: “We are fighting for our religion now, not for territory. The day the war ends we shall embrace the whole Iraqi nation with open arms and with a smile, and we shall no longer have any conflict with them.”

For its part, Iraq proclaims itself the frontline nation in a conflict that endangers the entire 21-country Arab bloc. Iraqis describe the war as Hussein’s Qadisiya, a reference to a battle in AD 637 in which Arabs triumphed over superior numbers of Persians. A longtime socialist, Hussein and his Ba’ath Party are convinced that the region’s future lies in modernization and they are concerned that Khomeini’s fundamentalism will spread to the

Shi’ites who make up the bulk of the labor force in Iraq’s oilfields. That is a fear that several neighboring oil states share, particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, whose leaders bristle at Khomeini’s repeated exhortations to the Shi’ites to rise up and overthrow the “U.S. lackeys” in the gulf. “There is no way to deal with Iran,” declared Hassan

Tawalba, Iraq’s director of external information. “It is a Middle Ages regime, and the world must help us to beat the devil out of them.”

In practice, the world has been most willing to sell arms to both combatants. According to a survey by the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research, due to be published next month, the three original suppliers of weapons to Iraq—the Soviet Union, France and Brazil—have

since been joined by 14 others, including the United States, Egypt, Britain and Italy. France alone has supplied Baghdad with $5 billion worth of arms since 1980, including five Super Etendard fighters, missile-armed helicopters and Roland surface-to-air missiles.

At the same time, Iran is now buying weapons from such politically disparate countries as North and South Korea, South Africa and Taiwan. Many of those shipments reach Iran through private arms dealers via circuitous routes. The United States, for example, is supplying Iran with arms through private dealers and via Israel, the Stockholm institute claims, and the Soviets are doing the same through Libya, Syria and the Warsaw Pact countries. Still, there is little doubt that Iraq has an advantage in military equipment. As well as having better tanks, mortars and more modern small arms, Baghdad has air superiority. About 400 of its warplanes are still in working condition. Iran, by comparison, now has only about 75 usable aircraft and relatively few antiaircraft weapons, according to Western sources.

Contrast: Correspondents who have travelled to the Iranian and Iraqi fronts say that the contrast between the two nations’ fighting styles „ is remarkable. Ever

1 since a June, 1982, re-

2 treat by Iraqi forces back

to their borders, Baghï dad has concentrated on

what its armed forces do I best—digging in at deg fensive positions and \ awaiting the Iranian

troops. By far the most critical battleground is the northernmost reaches of the marshes that surround Basra. There, the Iraqis have dug an elaborate series of bunkers in a manmade, 16-feet-thick wall of dirt that surrounds the entire marsh area. Farther back, antiaircraft guns and armored troops are concentrated, and ahead small watchtowers rise from the water, giving the soldiers, equipped with infrared, night-viewing lenses, a clear view of any enemy movement in

the vast marshes. “They cannot surprise us, even at night. We always know what they are planning,” said a colonel.

Compared with the Iraqis, the Iranians are poorly positioned and badly equipped. In order to strike at their enemies, Iranian troops armed only with rifles and grenades must come down from the mountainous areas of Mussian and Dehloran in Iran and cross a wide plain before reaching their side of the marshes. The terrain is flat and exposed, and the Iranians have been forced to resort to “human wave” attacks in which thousands of young death-or-glory martyrs race on foot across Iraq’s well-prepared minefields in an attempt to overwhelm the defenders by sheer force of numbers. The result, invariably, is a gruesome slaughter.

Rotting bodies of Islamic Revolutionary Guards, bloated and grey, still float in the muddy waters of the marsh, grim reminders of Iran’s most recent offensive in late February and early March.

Centralized: The most perplexing issue is why, with their superiority in modern arms, the Iraqis have been unable to vanquish their Iranian foes.

The answer, military analysts say, is that Iraq’s one million troops are both badly trained and poorly motivated. Modelled on the Soviet military system, the army is highly centralized, and its commanders tend to refer difficult decisions back to Baghdad. As a result, the soldiers show little initiative and they seldom do more than they are ordered to do.

At the same time, the officers have settled into a comfortable, often lazy routine. Their bunkers, even those within a kilometre or two of the front, are wood-panelled and equipped with such comforts as television sets and carpets. Food, cigarettes and clean sheets are also plentiful.

By contrast, Iran’s forces appear genuinely inspired by Islamic ideology. Battle operations are code-named after people and events from Moslem history, and the mullahs address the daily

morning parades by recalling the military exploits of Islam’s founder, the prophet Mohammed, 1,400 years ago. “We have become humble and human because we have become Islamic,” Col. Syed Shirazi, commander of the Iranian armed forces, told Maclean’s in a rare interview.

To symbolize the army’s transforma-

tion, the 41-year-old commander does not wear medals or ribbons on his crumpled fatigues. Nobody stands up or salutes when he enters a room because Shirazi prefers to be received by the traditional Islamic greeting of Salam— along with a hug or a kiss on the cheeks. “There is no superior or inferior among Moslems,” he said, toying with his prayer beads. The army’s infectious enthusiasm makes recruiting relatively

easy. From their vantage point in Washington, U.S. intelligence officers have recently spread reports of weakening Iranian morale and impatience with the war. U.S. intelligence sources also claim that Revolutionary Guards have been visiting secondary schools and universities in Iran, ordering them to fill compulsory military recruiting quotas. At the same time, the mullahs are appealing for volunteers for the front, according to U.S. military sources.

But recent visitors to Tehran contradict those interpretations. At the regular Friday morning prayers at Tehran University recently, more than 100,000 people gathered to cheer Rafsanjani, perhaps the second most powerful man in Iran, in a declaration of readiness to go to battle for their Islamic republic. Among those raising his fist was Mohammed Alizadeh, 27, who lost all movement in his right leg after being caught in a bomb blast on the southwestern front last year. “I want them to cut off my leg,” he said. “I can then go back to the front—and do something.’’

Iran’s use of child soldiers has provoked international controversy. Boys who survive the doomed human-wave attacks only to fall into Iraqi hands become pawns in a different sort of war— a propaganda battle waged for the benefit of world opinion. Some graphic accounts speak of press-gangs of fanatical mullahs travelling the Iranian countryside empowered to draft frightened young boys into military service. Often roped together in groups of 20 to prevent the fainthearted from deserting, the boys are supposedly issued small metal “keys to heaven” which they wear around their necks as talismans in case they are killed in the holy war against Iraq.

However, many such reports originate from Iranian exile sources in Europe. Among those are such confirmed opponents of Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionary government as the Parisbased Mojaheddin, a Marxist group that failed in an attempt to wrest power from Khomeini after the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

Reward: Indeed, as unsettling as the idea may be to Western sensibilities, the tragic reality probably is that most of Iran’s young recruits truly welcome death in the service of Islam. “It was saddening,” said Michael Rod of Terre des Hommes, a Swiss-based charity and humanitarian organization, who visited Iraq’s Al-Ramadi detention camp in December. “Death, they said, would be their supreme reward. They said they were eager to return home so they could resume fighting the Iraqis.

Iraq too has earned international opprobrium-over its use of poison gas. For months Iranian soldiers suffering

from blistered skin, lungs and other tissue had been flown to hospitals in Sweden, Austria and Britain. But the evidence of gas being used was circumstantial, and in a stream of statements Iraqi officials insisted that the charges were fabricated by Iran to excuse its military defeats. Then, on March 27, a UN-sponsored team of four independent specialists who had toured Iranian hospitals and the war zone declared there was conclusive evidence that Iraq was using mustard gas and the nerve agent Tabun in its bombs.

Many analysts contend that Hussein’s use of poison gas reflects a growing desperation over the course of the war. Iraq, whose 14 million citizens are outnumbered 3 to 1 by Iran, has gradually been forced to surrender large sections of territory to enemy forces, including a 300-square-mile area in the northern sector near Hajj Umran. An even more strategic loss was that of Majnoon (or “the crazy one”), a manmade island in the southern Al-Hawizah marshlands whose untapped oilfield contains seven billion barrels of known crude-oil reserves.

Contradictions: Other claims of military victory or defeat are often difficult to verify. Both countries routinely exclude Western journalists from the battlefront, leaving them to sort through official communiqués that are notoriously vague and frequently contradictory. When the authorities do invite reporters to the front, they place strict controls on their movements.

The propaganda war also takes the form of rival broadcasts, in Arabic or Persian, aimed at supporting morale at home while wearing down the opposi-

tion. Television programming in Baghdad alternates between lengthy, unedited film of the eastern front battles and footage of long lineups of Iraqis donating gold jewelry and rare family heirlooms to “the cause.” Broadcasts beamed at Tehran focus on the small, ravaged remains of Iranian youth who died in doomed “suicide” assaults.

On the other side, Iranian announcers daily implore the Iraqis to revolt against Hussein’s Ba’athist government. So far, Iran’s efforts to stir up dissent among Iraq’s 8.4 million Shi’ites have been unsuccessful. But a recent series of attacks by underground groups on state-controlled TV and radio stations, air force offices and the internal security headquarters may indicate that the tactic is finally bearing fruit.

The war has sapped both countries’ economies, but Iraq has clearly suffered most.

Soon after the onset of the war Iran destroyed Iraq’s main oil facilities at Fao. Then, almost two years later, Syria came to Iran’s defence by turning off the valve on Iraq’s major pipeline, which crosses Syrian territory on its way to the Mediterranean. The result of both actions has been to reduce Iraqi oil exports from three million barrels a day before the war to the current level of only one million barrels. Stung by falling

oil prices, Iraq has relied on repeated and massive infusions of cash from its frightened Arab neighbors to cover the $l-billion monthly cost of the war. The country’s austerity campaign includes a ban on virtually all imports except food and weapons.

Shortages: Iran has managed to wage the war without any financial assistance. Despite the length of the struggle, Tehran has paid off its foreign debt, which, at its peak in 1978, was $7.4 billion, and its foreign reserves are now roughly $7 billion. In Tehran, a city of eight million people, 800 km from the fighting, there are shortages of soap, sugar, shortening and some other essentials, but no one is starving. Stores are bulging with imports, smuggled in across the Persian Gulf from the sheikdom of Dubai. “Life is tough, very tough,” said Mohammed Afsaneh, 32, a small-businessman. “But we manage. We have to.”

Still, there are signs that an antiwar sentiment is building in both countries. Iran recently toned down some of its demands for a peace settlement, although the Islamic Revolutionary Republic is still insisting officially that Hussein’s resignation is fundamental to any political settlement. Khomeini himself is receiving envoys from Algeria, whose French-educated foreign minister, Taleb Ibrahimi, is practising

shuttle diplomacy in an attempt to encourage formal negotiations between the two belligerents. At the same time, there is a growing consensus

throughout the Arab world that Hussein will eventually have to sacrifice himself for peace. For more than a year various Arab governments have been quietly discussing an alternative leader who would not change the balance of power or Iraq’s policy directions.

In the end, the war may be decided simply by which leader can hang on longer: Khomeini, an 84-year-old recluse with a serious heart condition; or Hussein, whose own allies are worried that a prolonged continuation of the war could seriously destabilize the region. When either one of them dies or is overthrown, an intermediary such as Algeria could quickly bring about peace.

Ian Mather

Robin Wright

William Lowther