A battered city under siege

April 18 1988

A battered city under siege

April 18 1988

A battered city under siege


For almost two years, during the rule of the late Shah of Iran, Maclean’s Foreign Editor John Bierman was based in Tehran. On March 30 he went back to report on conditions in the Iranian capital under Iraqi missile attack. Late last week he returned with the following report:

Tehran’s busy Hafez Avenue was teeming with midafternoon traffic last Tuesday when an earsplitting crack pierced the din of the street. Spectators looked up to see a puff of white smoke as the warhead of an Iraqi Scud-B missile separated from its rocket about 1,600 feet above the ground. A second later there was a loud explosion as the missile landed in the Iranian capital’s bazaar quarter about one kilometre away, sending up an ominous cloud of brown dust. Police hurriedly cordoned off the target area as ambulances and relief workers rushed to the scene. Tehran radio and television gave no casualty figures, but the death toll in the crowded district

of mud-brick houses must have been high. And that evening there were signs of widespread fear as thousands of cars once again streamed out of the city, their occupants seeking refuge in the countryside.

Last week’s attack began a new phase in the deadly “war of the cities” between Iran and Iraq. After a one-week lull the two nations resumed the tit-fortat air and missile strikes that have claimed hundreds of civilian lives since they began in late February. Officials of both sides said that children were among the dead in last week’s exchanges. Iraq claimed that three children were killed and 41 injured when an Iranian missile hit a primary school in the southern port of Umm Qasr. And Iran claimed that three children playing in a hospital day care centre were killed when several missiles hit residential areas of Tehran on Wednesday.

But in Tehran, there were fears of even worse to come. Since the alleged Iraqi gas attack on the Kurdish border

town of Halabja last month—officially denied by Baghdad—citizens face a threat more terrible than the 440 lb. of high explosive carried by each of the roughly 130 Scud missiles fired by the Iraqis so far. The mustard, cyanide and nerve gases that killed hundreds of people in Halabja could have devastating effects in crowded Tehran.

Already, hundreds of thousands of Tehran residents have fled the city of 10 million and taken refuge in the spring countryside. A grim joke current among Tehranis is that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should be appointed Iran’s environment minister. At one stroke, the wits say, Saddam has solved the capital’s two most intractable problems—air pollution and traffic congestion. Iraqi missile attacks have driven so many people out of Tehran—some diplomats estimate as many as two million—that its estimated motor vehicle population of 450,000 has plummeted. As a result, the pall of exhaust smoke that normal-

ly hangs over the city has lifted. The air is so clear that the Alborz Mountains, which provide a dramatic backdrop to the capital, can be seen in all their snowcapped splendor for the first time in years.

Those who have left the city are mainly members of the middle and upper classes. Those well-to-do refugees are crowding the ski lodges and rental houses in the mountain resorts northwest of the capital. And diplomatic sources, who calculate that the city’s population of 10 million may have been reduced by as much as 25 per cent, say that the population of Mashhad—800 km east of Tehran, and well out of Iraq’s rocket range—has doubled to four million because of the exodus.

Other cities within the 500-km range of Iraq’s Scud-B missiles, such as Isfahan and Qom, have also witnessed a flight to the east. In Tehran, many better-off families who have elected not to leave the city have instead taken rooms in the capital’s half-dozen

luxury hotels. In fact, they are no safer there than they would be at home. “But they seem to feel more secure all huddled together,” explained one longtime European resident.

Foreign diplomats play down the likelihood that Iraq would use chemical weapons against Tehran. “Saddam would have to be insane, or really des-

perate, to do such a thing,” one Western ambassador told Maclean's last week. “He would force his superpower supporters —America and Russia—to disown him and, at the very least, seriously embarrass his backers in the Arab world.” But the diplomat and many of his colleagues do not altogether rule out an Iraqi chemical warfare attack. “Saddam is as unpredictable as he is ruthless,” said one.

For its part, Iraq also charges Iran with using chemical weapons. In Baghdad last week, Iraqi authorities invited United Nations investigators to examine 90 soldiers being treated in hospital for burns and eye injuries which they said were caused by an Iranian gas attack in the Halabja sector of the war front. But Ramal Rharrazi, director general of the Iranian office of war information, denied that Iran had ever used banned chemical weapons. Still, he added, “There are limits to our patience.” Although Iranian authorities concede that they cannot provide gas masks for all of the more than 20 million inhabitants of their threatened cities, they are attempting to instruct the public in simple protective measures. Posters, leaflets, newspaper articles and nightly radio and television programs give instructions in the use of such basic devices as a damp towel, lined with charcoal, to be applied to the face and mouth when the “beep-beep-beep” gasattack warning signal sounds. Authorities also warn people to go to the highest point they can reach, rather than sheltering in basements, because the gases are heavier than air, and to wear clothing that fits tightly at wrist, collar and ankle to protect the skin. Clearly, though, many less sophisticated Tehranis do not fully understand the government’s message. In a shop in a working-class district one day last week, one man

demonstrated his idea of chemical warfare protection by putting a plastic shopping bag over his head.

Until April 5, when two “mushaks,” as the Iranians call them, hit central Tehran and others struck Isfahan and Qom, the missile war had been on hold for a week. Diplomatic factors were the main reason. UN and International Red Cross teams were visiting Tehran to investigate Iran’s chemical warfare charges against Iraq. And Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal was visiting Baghdad for three days in an attempt to mediate between his warring neighbors. But the undeclared truce did not hold for the talks at UN headquarters in New York City that began April 6 between Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and representatives of the two sides.

Those talks, aimed at securing compliance with last summer’s Security Council Resolution 598 calling for a ceasefire, seemed doomed from the outset.

Although Iraq has accepted the resolution,

Iran has not, insisting that the Baghdad regime must be formally identified as the aggressor there can be a ceasefire.


Meanwhile, Iranians prepared to cast their ballots in last weekend’s elections to fill the 270 seats in the Majlis (parliament). President Ali Khamenei had urged voters to turn out in large numbers to demonstrate that they were not afraid of the missiles. And even before the polls opened, the missiles began landing on Tehran, Isfahan and Qom, while Iraqi bombers struck at two other towns closer to the border, drawing an Iranian response of five missiles aimed at Baghdad, Mosul and Al-Amarah.

There was no independent assessment of the voter turnout, but the official Tehran Radio described it as “remarkable.”

But the war rather than the election remained the Iranians’ main preoccupation. In reply to the Sovietmade Scuds launched by the Iraqis, the Iranians claim to have sent

at least 70 of their own Scuds in the opposite direction since the beginning of March, hitting Baghdad, Saddam’s home town Tikrit and the northern oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Although fewer in number, the Iranian missiles have probably had a greater destructive effect. Tehran’s war information chief, Kharrazi, told Maclean's that the Iranian missiles carried four times the payload of their Iraqi counterparts because the Iraqi

targets were considerably closer to border launching sites. “The damage they have done to us is not comparable to what we have done to Baghdad,” said Kharrazi. However, foreign diplomats and other independent observers say that the casualty figures released by Kharrazi’s office last week—1,150 dead and 4,000 injured in the period before the one-week lull —were probably a deliberate underestimate.

Still, it appeared that Iraq’s attempt to frighten Iran’s population into opposing the war by hitting at civilian targets had largely failed. “Although people in general are fed up and frightened, they are not likely to raise their voices,” said one senior foreign diplomat. “This is not just because they are afraid of the regime, but also because it is a matter of national prestige—even for people who do not like the regime —

to make the other side sue for peace first.”

In fact, the Iranians have the upper hand in the war. They have retaken all the territory that the Iraqis took in their initial invasion of Iran in September, 1980, and now hold significant areas of Iraq. Those include the west bank of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway and the Fao Peninsula, at the head of the Gulf, from which their forces threaten the vital city of Basra, and the estimated 400 square miles that they seized in Iraqi Kurdistan in a surprise offensive that ended last week.

However, the overall strategic situation remains one of stalemate, with the Iranians’ numerical superiority matched by Iraq’s sophisticated weaponry and air power. No end to the bloody Gulf War —which, according to widely accepted estimates, has already claimed more than a million lives —seems yet in sight. Meanwhile, the o missiles continue to plunge ~ to earth out of an uncannily S clear sky. □