The original Gulf War,note in spite of its fury and length, has largely been passed over by world media, and indeed works set in it are rare these days outside of Iran. (Iraq, for understandable reasons, doesn't have much of a film industry.)
Iran-Iraq rivalry, the Islamic Revolution and Saddam's ambitions
In accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the former Ottoman Empire was carved up with a number of moronically straight lines in the aftermath of World War I by the Entente Cordiale. Iraq was created as a British puppet, with territory that was majority Shi'ite - the majority denomination in Iran - and territories that Iran claimed for itself. However, the new territory had to be given to the Sunni Prince Faisal of Hejaz, to whom Britain had promised Syria and then stood idly by when France conquered it from him to create their own puppet. The prince proceeded to pack the Iraqi elite with fellow Sunnis, to Iran's dismay. Iran also included territories claimed by Iraq, notably the oil-rich Khuzestan—part of which was a majority-Arab that had even previously been called "Arabstan" for quite some time.note Iraq and Iran both supported insurgent groups in each others' territories. The border dispute remains unsolved to this day.
Ironically, in 1978, it was Iranian spies that informed Saddam Hussein (then vice-president) of a pro-Soviet coup plot, allowing Saddam to initiate a purge and solidify his position. Ties between the countries briefly improved.
In 1979, the Islamic revolution occurred in Iran. The pro-U.S. monarchy was overthrown and replaced by a new theocratic state. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein took over the office of President. Over the next two years, ties between the two countries deteriorated. By 1980 Saddam was actively incorporating allusions of the Islamic conquest of Iran centuries ago. Iran denounced the Iraqi regime as a "Puppet of Satan" (please recall that the Islamic Republic called the United States the "Great Satan" and Israel the "Little Satan." Make of that what you will).
Iran was in turmoil by 1980: its army was purged by the mullahs, the U.S. suspended the supply of spare parts and its air force was crippled. The new regime sidelined the traditional military in favor of new, ideologically motivated militias, such as the Pasdaran—"The Revolutionary Guards." Iraq was convinced that the Iranian population hated the new regime. When numerous Iranian officials from the Shah's regime fled to Iraq, Saddam believed that the weak Islamic regime would collapse easily. He believed that a military invasion would spark a new revolution which would overthrow Khomeini and install a government that would be subservient to Iraq's interests.
The Iranian embassy in London was attacked by Iraqi-sponsored terrorists. A series of terrorist incidents in Iraq culminated with the failed assassination attempt of its foreign minister. In September 1980, Iraq invaded.
1980-82: Invasion and Counter-Offensive
The Iraq invasion plan called for a series of preemptive airstrikes to cripple the Iranian Air Force, followed up by a ground assault by nine divisions to seize Khuzestan and passes in the Zagros Mountains. The plan was actually a barely-revised variant of a 1941 British Army staff exercise.
The war began on September 22 when Iraqi jets began their strikes on Iranian air bases. This air offensive, however, turned out to be a failure, as Iraqi intelligence was out of date and their pilots lacked the training in air to ground operations. Many of the Iraqi attacks were highly inaccurate and only caused superficial damage to the Iranian Air Force. At the end of the day, no Iranian air base was put out of action and aircraft losses were negligible. To add insult to injury, the Iranians gained air superiority the next day.
On the ground, Iraq deployed nine well-armed divisions against the three understrength Iranian divisions along the border (at the time, one quarter of the Iranian Army was fighting the Kurds and the Revolutionary Guards were mere rabble). In spite of Iraq's advantages in ground forces, the invasion moved at a snail's pace because the Iraqis preferred to halt and use massive amounts of firepower whenever any resistance was encountered. Iraqi mechanized forces never used their mobility to outflank or encircle the enemy. The only city the Iraqis captured in the invasion was Khorramshahr, but it did so over the course of four weeks and after suffering heavy losses.
By October and November, the Iraqi invasion was past its high point. They'd failed to secure nearly all of their major objectives with the exception of Khorramshahr; in response they announced a ceasefire on October 5 with the hopes of reorganizing its forces to resume the invasion. This allowed the Iranians to bring in reinforcements in December to launch a counteroffensive by 1981. Additionally, the start of the rainy season in Khuzestan hampered Iraqi forces as their vehicles could not operate effectively in the mud.
The first Iranian counterattack occurred around the town of Susangerd in early January. The Iranian plan was to use two armored divisions to encircle the Iraqi brigades around the town, but Iraqi signals intelligence detected this plan and they moved two divisions and a brigade to bolster the defense. While the Iranian attack started off well, it ran into an Iraqi trap and lost 200 of their 300 tanks in the subsequent engagement. Despite the setback, the Susangerd tank battle and other battles that were fought during the summer were preparatory operations to refine Iranian skills for their main counteroffensive.
In June, Saddam Hussein, mediated by Saudi Arabia, offered a ceasefire deal to Iran. Iran rejected it, declaring that they would "continue the war until Saddam Hussein is overthrown so that we can pray at Karbala and Jerusalem." This may seem ludicrous, but keep in mind that Iraq still occupied significant portions of Iranian land at the time. A ceasefire is not the same as a treaty, and no Iranian trusted Saddam to keep the peace.
Iran launched its counteroffensive in September 1981. The Iranians first focused on defeating Iraqi forces in southern Khuzestan, and then switched their focus on northern Khuzestan in November. Near the town of Bostan the Iranians launched a fierce counterattack with two armored divisions reinforced by the Revolutionary Guards; the attack routed the two Iraqi divisions in the area and created a salient where an Iraqi grouping further north near Dezful—which was originally tasked with seizing the Zagros passes—was vulnerable to a flank attack.
On 22 March 1982 the Iranians unleashed a double-envelopment attack against the Iraqi grouping with 60,000 regular troops and 80,000 Revolutionary Guards. Over the next eight days the Iranians routed the Iraqis who could escape and trapped several brigades in their encirclement.
Iranian tactics in these battles generally consisted of a human-wave attack by the Revolutionary Guards against sectors held by the poorly-trained Iraqi Popular Army, which would be followed up by heavy forces exploiting the penetration and creating encirclements. Iraqi commanders were often too slow in responding to these penetrations, so they could not halt the Iranian attacks effectively.
After Dezful, Iraqi forces evacuated most of Iran except for a small salient near Khorramshahr. This salient was eliminated after an Iranian counterattack launched at the end of April; Khorramshahr itself fell in late May, when Iranian forces recaptured the city in twenty four hours. The counteroffensive was over and Iran regained all the territory it lost since 1980.
1982-86: Iranian Invasion and Stalemate
In July 1982 Iran invaded Iraq in Operation "Blessed Ramadan" with the goal of seizing the Iraqi city of al-Basrah. The Iranians knew that the Shia population in southern Iraq was unsympathetic to Saddam's regime, and believed that seizing al-Basrah would ignite a Shia revolt that could remove Saddam from power. Before "Blessed Ramadan" began Iraqi engineers built up considerable defenses around al-Basrah, including an artificial lake (Fish Lake) that could electrocute anyone who tried to jump in. The Iranians attacked on July 13-14, but most of their forces were halted by the fierce Iraqi defenses. One armored division with Revolutionary Guards support managed to penetrate through Iraqi defenses, but it was intercepted by three Iraqi armored divisions; 700 Iraqi tanks faced 100 Iranian tanks in a lopsided encounter and the penetrating force was routed. The Iranians tried again two more times, but again the Iraqi armored divisions drove them out.
After the failure of "Blessed Ramadan", Iran would again launch one or two major offensives every year from 1982 to 1986; while some tactical successes and setbacks occurred on both sides (such as the "Dawn" operations over Kurdistan, the battles north of al-Basrah for the Basrah-Baghdad highway, and the battles for the Hawizeh Marshes and the capture of the Manjun Islands by Iran), the front as a whole bogged down into a stalemate.
In 1984, Saddam initiated a large aerial offensive, strategically bombing a dozen Iranian cities, Iran responded with its own bombing and intercept campaign. This would become known as the first "War of the Cities".
By 1985, Iraq enjoyed widespread military and financial support, not the least of which were from the West and the Warsaw Pact countries. Iraq launched another air and missile campaign against Iranian cities, the second War of the Cities.
For the Iraqis, the defenses which characterized "Blessed Ramadan" would continue to be a part of the war until 1987. Engineers built defenses in depth so that any Iranian penetration would meet fresh defensive lines several kilometers back; strongpoint defenses optimized against mechanized forces were replaced with linear sand berms against infantry-heavy Iranian attacks. These defenses included pits for tanks and artillery, and platforms for antiaircraft guns to "hose down" massed infantry attacks. In addition, the Iraqi leadership expanded the army and redirected the ineffective Popular Army units to passive sectors of the front. An American effort was launched to resupply and revitalize the Iraqi Army after its defeat in Iran. Large loans were given to help Saddam; foreign countries like the Soviet Union and France sold weapons to Iraq. Saddam started to use chemical weapons and mustard gas at this point, which caused further losses among the Iranians.
As the war went on for the Iranians, more problems appeared that lowered their military effectiveness. The international arms embargoes against Iran meant that it could not easily replace its stocks of American weapons, its computerized logistics system was sabotaged during the revolution, and the Revolutionary Guards' human-wave attacks—once successful during the Iranian counteroffensive—were ineffective against prepared Iraqi defenses. These Revolutionary Guards volunteers were inspired before battle by tales of Ashura, the Battle of Karbala, and the supreme glory of martyrdom, and sometimes by an actor (usually a more mature soldier), playing the part of Imam Hossein himself riding a white horse, galloping along the lines, providing the child soldiers a vision of "the hero who would lead them into their fateful battle before they met God." Furthermore, the poor coordination between the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Army crippled initial success, as the army was unable to follow up a successful human-wave attack with exploitation forces. To compensate for their lack of war materiel Iran bought weapons from North Korea, Libya, and China.
1986-87: Breaking the Stalemate in Basrah
By 1986 the war appeared to be at a deadlock. Iraq believed that a stalemate would force Iran to realize the extent of their meaningless offensives and come to a ceasefire. However, Iran struck where the Iraqis did not expect.
On February 1986 Iranian forces commenced Operation "Dawn-8"; they crossed the Shatt al-Arab river and captured the al-Faw Peninsula—a tip of Iraqi land that jutted out into the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi leadership was now faced with a force that could bypass the considerable defenses of al-Basrah and take the city from an open flank. A counterattacking force was hastily assembled and sent towards al-Faw, but poor coordination (tanks were attacking with minimal infantry support) allowed Iranian AH-1 Cobra helicopters and forces that had crossed to repel the Iraqis with ease. Iraq desperately sent its Republican Guard divisions and launched an air offensive to stem the Iranian offensive, which were successful but they could not drive the Iranians from al-Faw. Iraq launched a third counterattack on February 22 with three divisions with considerable air support, but they too were unable to defeat the Iranians due to poor infantry-tank coordination.
The failure of the al-Faw counterattacks convinced Saddam that his military commanders should be allowed to run operations as they saw fit. Because the regular Iraqi Army proved itself to be ineffective on the offense, the military leadership received approval to expand the Republican Guard into a specialized attack force. By early 1987, the original collection of brigades which made up the Republican Guard expanded into a corps command (Republican Guard Forces Command, RFGC) with eighteen brigades organized into three divisions. More importantly, the Republican Guard began to recruit people based on their military skills rather than political loyalty. The Iraqi General Staff decided to centralize control and write out the "script" for offensive operations, rather than the decentralized approach (let the field commanders do as they wish) which led to ineffectiveness in earlier operations of the war.
Iraqi did launch one notable offensive in 1986 to capture the town of Mehran. Two divisions took the town on May 17 and held it until an Iranian counterattack drove the Iraqis out at the end of June.
In the air, the mediocre performance of the Iraqi Air Force in strategic bombing forced the leadership to switch to SCUD missiles against Iranian cities.
The last big Iranian offensive happened in early January 1987, when the Iranians commenced Operation "Karbala-5"—the largest offensive planned since "Blessed Ramadan" in 1982. Because the Iraqis were focused on a possible thrust from al-Faw, the Iranians played on this by launching a false attack from the peninsula. The real attack came from the north-east and south-east of al-Basrah. Iraqi forces there were initially surprised and the Iranians managed to penetrate two of the six defensive lines protecting the city; however, the attack ground to a halt due to a lack of tanks and a reliance on human-wave attacks. Both sides rushed in reinforcements to al-Basrah; Iraq unleashed a massive artillery bombardment mixed with chemical weapons against the attacking Iranians, as well as instructing the air force to deliver as many as 500 sorties a day to drive the Iranians out. Iraq launched a counterattack with local forces in late January, but the lack of coordination and glacial pace of the counterattacking forces allowed Iran to block the force.
In February, the Iranians fed in more men to sustain the attack on the city. While Iranian forces managed to penetrate five of the six defensive lines around al-Basrah by the end of February, they had lost too much men (70,000-80,000) to continue attacking. Moreover, the arrival of Republican Guard reinforcements made the attacking task much more difficult. In March, the Iraqis attempted a second counterattack, which like the first broke down due to a lack of coordination. Ultimately, "Karbala-5" was the last large offensive operation Iran would undertake in the war. Other offensives like "Karbala-10" and "Nasr-4" were successfully carried out in Kurdistan, but they were strategically insignificant compared to the combat actions in the south.
The UN Security Council passed Resolution 598, calling for a ceasefire; Saddam accepted but Iran—still believing that Iraqi forces were on the verge of collapse—refused, and so the fighting continued. The U.S. conducted four naval operations to protect oil tankers and to attack Iranian platforms that could be used for naval attacks on shipping in the Gulf.
1988: Final Iraqi Offensives
With the failure of Iran's last offensive against al-Basrah, Iraq decided to launch five offensive operations starting in April 1988 to bring the war to a close.
The first operation, Operation "Blessed Ramadan" (no relation to the Iranian operation) began on April 17 with the goal of recapturing the al-Faw Peninsula. The defending Iranian forces were surprised because of Iraqi's operational security and effective deception measures. The Republican Guard Corps and a regular army corps, plus a Republican Guard naval infantry brigade—100,000 men—were deployed against 15,000 Iranians defending the peninsula. The Iraqis were supported by heavy artillery and chemical bombardments and in thirty-five hours the peninsula was recaptured.
The other four operations were part of a larger campaign called "Trust in God". The first of these operations commenced on May 25 when the Republican Guard Corps and a regular army corps were tasked with eliminating Iranian forces which established a salient to the south of Fish Lake after "Karbala-5". As in "Blessed Ramadan" Iraqi deception techniques caught the Iranians by surprise and the attacking Iraqi forces had considerable advantages in infantry and tank strength, as well as chemical weapons to reduce stubborn defenses. In twelve hours, Iraqi forces reduced the salient in a series of flanking maneuvers.
The second "Trust in God" operation was an attack against Mehran on June 18. This time, the Iraqis launched their attack with the help of an anti-Khomeini dissident group. The attack started with a preparatory artillery barrage that included chemical weapons, followed up by a massed armored assault that swept away the Revolutionary Guard divisions that were defending the area.
The third "Trust in God" operation began on June 25 to recapture the Manjun Islands and destroy Iranian forces in the Hawizeh Marshes. A Republican Guard naval infantry brigade seized the islands and tanks were moved to defend them against counterattacks. Then, a double envelopment maneuver was launched into the Hawizeh Marshes with Republican Guard divisions forming the north pincer and regular army divisions forming the south pincer. The Iraqis devastated six to eight Iranian divisions before withdrawing across the border.
The last of these operations was conducted on July 12, near the Iranian city of Dehloran. The Iraqis again employed a double envelopment maneuver scheme with the Republican Guard Corps and a regular army corps; they drove 40 kilometers into Iran and routed a number of Iranian formations before withdrawing back into Iraq.
During this year, a U.S. warship shot down Iran Air Flight 655, resulting in the death of 300 people, apparently during a botched covert operation.
Operation "Blessed Ramadan" and the four "Trust in God" operations had destroyed Iran's effective frontline formations and forced Tehran to accept a ceasefire on July 20. Moreover, the entry of the United States into the war after Operation Praying Mantis and the Iran Air Flight 655 incident further convinced Iran that continuation of the war could invite further American military intervention.
After the ceasefire, an anti-government group inside Iran began an armed uprising against the government, supported by Iraqi fighter bombers. Iraq also launched a surprise offensive into Iran. However, widespread censure and the threat of foreign intervention forced Saddam to relent and the uprising was crushed. The war was over.
AftermathThe war was very costly in terms of people dead, infrastructure destroyed and debts incurred, for both countries. Iran's casualties numbered at over 1 million and Iraqi casualties numbered 400,000-500,000, and this is excluding an unknown number of civilian deaths. Iran and Iraq both incurred debts of over 600 billion U.S. dollars, and much of Iraq's oil production infrastructure was in ruins. And all of this was for zero territorial gain for either country.
Politically, it was inconclusive. Both sides claimed victory; Saddam had successfully held on to Basra throughout the war, while Iran had defeated the initial Iraqi invasion and would have reached Baghdad if they had won the Battle for Basra. Both sides failed to achieve their stated goals, however.
In Iran, the Islamic revolution had grown ever more radicalized over the course of the war. Their leaders never forgot U.S. support of Saddam, blaming it for cheating them of victory.
With its oil production crippled, Iraq found itself unable to pay off any of its debts, the largest amount being owed to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This eventually drove Saddam to order an invasion of Kuwait, which resulted in the First Gulf War, wherein the Iraqi army was all but destroyed by an international coalition. Over the next decade, Saddam would slowly lose his grip on power and his own country.
The Iran-Iraq War in fiction:
- Persepolis: Part of the graphic novel (and the film adaptation) is set during the period, as we get to see stylized battle scenes and Tehran attacked by bombers and SCUDs.
- 1986 Iraqi film The Flaming Borders ("Alhodood Almultahebah") follows an Iraqi black ops unit. Fragments of this film are still available to watch on You Tube.
- 1989 Iranian film Mohajer has an unusual plot for its time - it follows an Iranian unit operating a UAV (drone).
- The horror movie Under The Shadow takes place during the war. A mother and her daughter live in Tehran during Iraq's bombing of the city, and the husband is called to the front and has to leave his family behind.
- Green Zone: When Miller asks crippled Iraqi civilian "Freddie" how he lost his leg, his answer is "I left it in Iran," revealing that he's a veteran of this war.
- Referenced in Yes, Prime Minister (which was set in The '80s) in the episode "A Diplomatic Incident":
Bernard: "No, we cannot have alphabetical seating at the abbey. That would mean Iraq and Iran would be sitting next to each other..."
- Covered in brief in a 1980s Spitting Image episode in the form of a newsreel, poking fun at the conflict from the vantage points of both the warring nations and the (slumbering) international community.
- The Iran Air Flight 655 incident inspired the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Rules of Engagement", where Worf faces an extradition hearing after accidentally destroying a Klingon civilian transport that decloaked in front of him while he was defending a freighter convoy from a Klingon raiding party.
- The war plays a big role in House of Saddam, a historical drama chronicling the rise and fall of Iraq's former dictator Saddam Hussein.
- The war is a late-war event in Twilight Struggle.
- the Cabaret Voltaire album Red Mecca focuses on the turmoil of the 1980s Middle East, with the Iran-Iraq war being a centerpiece.