On Christmas Eve, 1986, Iranian forces launched a major assault on Basra, a sprawling Iraqi city near the southeastern border with Iran—a bloody two-month siege that eventually took 65,000 lives. Last month, with the arrival of cool winter weather, the Iranians threatened another offensive in the seven-year war, and Iraqi troops braced for attack. But while Iranian and Iraqi forces skirmished in the north, the expected offensive still had not occurred by last week. Maclean’s correspondent Carol Berger travelled the 600 km from Baghdad into the eerie calm of Basra, just 25 km from Iranian front lines. Her report:
In Baghdad, the government of President Saddam Hussein has worked hard to hide the grim reminders of war. Off-duty soldiers carry no guns. Military transport centres are located at the edge of Iraq’s oil-rich modern capital, far away from the crowded downtown. Despite those efforts, the war has brought worsening food shortages and rising inflation—and the agonizing knowledge that young Iraqi soldiers are dying in battle. But even there officials have sought to lessen the public impact: government staff routinely remove the socalled martyrs’ banners, strung outside the homes of the dead in a gesture of public mourning. “We try to minimize the psychological burden,” said Iraqi Finance Minister Hikmat Omar Mekhailef, “to do our bit for the people sitting in Baghdad so that they can live with this war just as if it were part of their life. ”
The full burden of war only appeared on the roads into the southern floodplains of Iraq leading toward the beleaguered city of Basra. In the dead of winter, with the rain falling in grey sheets, the few remaining in largely deserted towns clearly suffered from
an overwhelming sense of bereavement. Solemn young soldiers, numbed by the chill, stood at the roadside, waiting for trucks to take them to a new posting along the 1,200-km Iran-
Iraq border. Most of the civilian residents had disappeared, scrambling northward toward greater safety after seven years of seemingly endless fighting.
As reports had suggested, it was apparent that Iraq had placed large
numbers of men and tanks along 180 km of the main highway approaching Basra. Last month Iranian forces attacked Iraqi front lines in that region in an apparent attempt to reach the highway. Further assaults have been expected, so the main highway was
jammed with tank transporters and army trucks.
The signs of war were everywhere. Military personnel patrolled the deserted local villages, peering beyond
the sagging mud walls for signs of an attack. Fields were neglected, churned into mud after weeks of rain and troop movements. The picture windows of the few roadside cafés that served soldiers in transit were masked with tape to reduce the risk of injury from shellshattered glass. To decrease their exposure in the relentlessly flat terrain, Iraqi soldiers had constructed 20-foot-high earth walls around their ammunition dumps, transport depots and troop positions. Machine-gun posts dotted the tops of those walls. Soldiers had also built 60-foot mounds from which rapid-fire antiair^ craft guns pointed tog ward the ground—ready I to strafe the Iranian human waves employed in previous attacks.
Basra itself was relatively calm. Seven years of warfare have devastated the community that is Iraq’s second-largest city. More than 300,000 residents have fled. Most of the remaining IV2 million civilians have shifted to the west side of
the city into the fetid and overcrowded suburb of Jumhuriya, beyond the range of Iranian shelling. Winter rains have flooded that suburb with refuse-strewn waste water.
So far this winter, the shelling has been mercifully intermittent. But on Jan. 9 Iranian shells struck the city’s centre and its largest civilian hospital, killing eight people. That assault came in retaliation for an Iraqi attack on an Iranian oil terminal. Now the winter has become a war of nerves. Although Iranians launched winter offensives in 1984 and in early and late 1986, many military observers believe that they have changed their tactics from massive attacks to limited strikes on strategic areas. As one military observer said, “The Iranians want Iraq to overcommit itself, to overstretch its armor.” Ruling out a major Iranian offensive, he added, “We are looking at a further period of attrition, of costly Iranian losses, but not on the scale of last year.”
Despite that speculation, Basra cannot afford to relax. In the once-posh heart of the city, along the Shatt AlArab waterway, soldiers manned antiaircraft guns at street intersections. Homes of affluent residents and oncepopular nightclubs were abandoned. The scars of exploding shells were evident in the shredded pavement and shattered cement walls. The few buildings that were still inhabited were heavily banked with sandbags. A man calling himself only Ali, who ran a car repair shop from his damaged house, declared that he had no intention of leaving: “Where can I go?” On the outside wall of his house hung a faded martyr’s banner in solemn tribute to his 18-year-old son who was killed in the fighting in 1984.
Like all wars, the conflict has touched and toughened the children. Small youngsters, from families that were unwilling or unable to leave, roamed the deserted streets, enthusiastically imitating the sounds of exploding shells. A 10-year-old boy graphically described the shrapnel injuries that a neighborhood child had suffered. Another fretted about the fact that soldiers posted into the area were shooting the birds. Riyadh, an 11year-old boy, asked, “Do they bomb in your country?”
That grim perseverance has spread to the remaining civilians. As bartender Mahmoud Ali Hosni observed: “We have hope. Even though they are shelling, life is going on and people are coming here. It is better than the shelling of early last year. People expect that there will be an offensive but they don’t feel nervous because they are used to this.” In Basra, war has become the normal way of life. □
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