Death in the Garden of Eden

BOB LEVIN January 26 1987

Death in the Garden of Eden

BOB LEVIN January 26 1987

Death in the Garden of Eden


Some of the bodies had been completely crushed. Others had been charred beyond recognition, while still others had been machine-gunned to death. As shown on Iraqi television in Baghdad, most of the Iranian victims were mere boys, confirming Iraqi assertions that Tehran was sending human waves of baseej—volunteer's from schools and colleges—against the enemy. Reports in Baghdad spoke of Iraqi officers, sickened by the slaughter, shouting at the baseej to go back.

The Iraqi accounts were clearly self-serving, and both sides’ claims of military triumphs were suspect at best. But one thing was certain: last week’s fighting was some of the fiercest and grisliest of the six-year-old Iran-Iraq war. The brunt of the battle took place in southern Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers join to form the Shatt alArab waterway. In the early-morning darkness of Jan. 9, about 30,000 Iranian troops crossed the Shatt, which serves as the border between the two countries, and entered a large marshy area thick with bullrushes. There they were met by Iraqi defenders — and the marshes ran with blood.

The invaders managed to march about three kilometres and establish a foothold on Fish Lake, a reservoir dug by the Iraqis to guard the key port city of Basra 24 km to the west. Iraq responded with air and missile raids on Iranian cities, and the Iranians launched a limited attack on central Iraq.

But by week’s end, it appeared that Iran’s twopronged assault, like the war as a whole, had bogged down into a savage stalemate.

Neither country allowed independent observers to visit the southern battlefield, which one Iraqi

commander called the “killing zone.” But analysts in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital city 450 km to the north, said that about 10,000 Iranians and a lesser number of Iraqis may have been killed or wounded in the week’s fighting. That would bring the total number of casualties to an estimated one million since September, 1980, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began the war by sending six armored divisions across the Shatt in an effort to seize territory from Iran. Since then the fighting has virtually consumed the two governments and their oil-based economies. The Iraqis have indicated their willingness to accept a peaceful settlement. But the Iranians, vowing to seek total victory, have massed 650,000 troops along the border for a long-threatened final offensive that experts anticipated would begin by the end of March. Last week analysts in Washington and the Middle East said they could not yet determine whether Iran’s latest incursion was the start of that offensive.

For all the uncertainty surrounding the fighting, Iran’s objective seemed clear: to capture Basra, Iraq’s second-

largest city with a population of about 1.5 million people. There, experts say, Iranian troops would set up a provisional government under Ayatollah Bakr Hakim, an Iraqi of the Shia sect—a breakaway branch of Islam—who has been living in exile in Shiite-controlled Iran. That government would then try to sow internal dissent against the secular Baathist regime of President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Moslem in a country with a Shiite majority. Leaders in Baghdad have talked about a red line of Iraqi casualties that, if crossed, could lead to enough internal dissatisfaction to overthrow Hussein. But they have never said how high that number is, and most U.S. analysts say that they do not believe Baghdad is close to reaching it.

The assault on Basra was the second in as many months.

On Christmas Eve the Iraqis repulsed an Iranian advance on the city from further north that, according to U.S. military officials, left an estimated 10,000 Iranians and 2,500 Iraqis dead. Some analysts suggest that the Iranians may be trying to exploit the current rainy season, which enlarges the swamps and prevents the Iraqis from making effective use of their superior tank force.

But observers in Washington said last week that the Iranians’ latest frontal assault would still be hard pressed to pierce Iraq’s so-called Iron Fort Line, an elaborate 10-kmlong network of bunkers and minefields east of Basra. “I don’t believe Iran can punch through them,” said Steve Goose, a military analyst with the Washingtonbased Center for Defence Information. “And if they did, I don’t think they could hold Basra for long.”

Exactly what Iran did accomplish last week had to be sorted out from a barrage of conflicting bulletins. On Sunday, as Iraqi heavy artillery fired on the advancing Iranians, Iraqi television showed Hussein himself, wearing a helmet and sunglasses, visiting the front. There, commanders assured him that the operation was “on the right course,” the agency said. The Iranian press agency, on the other hand, reported that Iranian listening posts heard Hussein “desperately urging his demoralized commanders to resist.”

On Tuesday the Iranian press agency reported that Tehran’s troops had, in fact, breached the Iron Fort Line. The agency also said that Iranian forces had expanded their four-square-mile beachhead at Fish Lake to about 39 square

miles. But Iraqi sources claimed that Baghdad’s men had recovered most of the swampland, pinning down the invaders on a nameless four-square-mile mud island. A U.S. defence department analyst said that, based on satellite and other intelligence data, the Iraqis appeared to be holding the Iranians to two

beachheads, one at the south end of Fish Lake and the other a few kilometres further south.

Iran’s gains in central Iraq seemed even more modest. The attack, which the Iranians billed as the opening of a second front, came in the Mandali area about 115 km northeast of Baghdad. Radio Tehran said on Wednesday that Iranian forces had recaptured a chain of strategic border posts occupied by the Iraqis since the beginning of the war. But a state department spokesman said the following day that the positions were of little importance and that the attack had proved unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Iraqi planes bombarded several Iranian targets, including Tehran and the holy city of Qom. An Iraqi spokesman said that the attacks were designed “to let the Iranian rulers know they are mere dwarfs.” The Iraqis enjoy a 5-to-l advantage in air power, which helps to compensate for Iran’s three-toone margin in troop strength. Adding to

Iraq’s air superiority is the reported arrival of a shipment of F-29 Fulerums, the first Soviet fighter with the genuine ability to use its radar to locate, track and shoot down aircraft. But a surprising number of Iranian F-4s have taken part in the battle for Basra. That, analysts said, is an indication that spare

parts from the United States and Israel, acquired along with TOW missiles in the controversial arms-for-hostages deal, have been put to good use. The TOWS could be effective against Iraqi tanks and bunkers, but it is not clear whether they have made a significant difference in recent fighting.

While most of the combat has occurred elsewhere, the war has also come home to the two capitals. Last week four Iranian missiles landed in Baghdad, causing some casualties but apparently little panic. Maclean's correspondent Ian Mather reported that the city’s streets, public buildings and mosques were fully illuminated at night, and its restaurants and airport remained open. That was in keeping with Hussein’s “normality” policy, designed to buoy public spirit.

In Tehran, however, life was clearly disrupted. While Western correspondents have not been allowed to visit the city in recent months, residents reached

by telephone said that they faced rationing and long lines to buy food and fuel. They also had to cope with power blackouts of up to 10 hours a day, the result of Iraqi bombardment of two large power plants. And with young men facing a seemingly insatiable demand for soldiers, at least 200,000 draft-

age Iranians have taken refuge in neighboring Turkey since the war started.

At week’s end, the outcome of the Iranian incursion remained in doubt. Some U.S. analysts said that Tehran, fast running out of money, might not be able to keep up the pressure much longer. “If the military offensive fails this time,” said Tom McNaugher, an analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, “there is a big question of how many more the Iranians will be able to launch.” Should the Iranians break through, however, another question would loom: whether the Iraqis, who have reportedly shot chemical-filled artillery shells at the Iranians, would make massive use of poison gas as a last resort. That remains a hypothetical horror. But the slaughter in southern Iraq—an area that legend holds to be the site of the Garden of Eden—is agonizingly, real.

-BOB LEVIN with IAN MATHER in Baghdad and WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington