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War in the Persian Gulf

22 minute read
Spencer Davidson

COVER STORIES Seeking power and revenge, Iraq attacks Iran along a crucial oil artery

Suddenly the nightmare, the conflict that had only been discussed as a worst-case scenario, was at hand—war amid the oilfields and across the vital oil routes of the Persian Gulf. Day after day last week, Iraqi pilots flying Soviet-built MiGs headed eastward for bombing raids on military targets and oil facilities across the Iranian border, including the Tigris-Euphrates estuary known as Shatt al Arab. Caught by surprise at first, the Iranians responded with attacks of their own, sending American-made Phantom F-4 fighter-bombers against Iraqi cities and installations. A fearful battle was under way. Iraqi armor and infantry punched across 500 miles of desert front at many points, surrounding two key Iranian cities but running into stubborn resistance and counterattacks. In the Shatt and in the northern gulf, naval craft skirmished and bombarded shore installations.

After months of border clashes, Iraq and Iran were at war, upsetting an already precarious balance in a volatile, politically unstable region that provides approximately 40% of the non-Communist world’s oil and is a cockpit of superpower rivalry. “Whether it has been declared or not,” said Iraqi Defense Minister Adnan Khairallah early on, “it is in fact war.” The struggle escalated quickly and as it did, spread to key oil facilities on both sides—Basra, Kirkuk and Mosul in Iraq, Abadan and Kharg island in Iran. With thick black smoke pluming from bombed tank farms and refineries, petroleum-consuming nations around the globe anxiously calculated and then recalculated the implications. Said one U.S. official in tallying up the damage: “Once oil installations became fair game, the stakes became much higher for everyone.”

Given the limited military capabilities of the combatants, the war did not appear likely to be a prolonged one, although Iran’s Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini pledged to fight until “the government of heathens in Iraq topples.” Mediation efforts by the U.N. were rebuffed, but the Conference of Islamic Nations dispatched a “goodwill mission” consisting of Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq and Tunisia’s Habib Chatti, the organization’s secretary-general, to the combatant capitals. No matter how long the struggle continued or how soon it ended, the shock waves had already reached out from the gulf. They included concerns about:

Oil Supply. Within days of the outbreak of heavy fighting, oil shipments from Iraq and Iran were suspended, including crude deliveries through Iraq’s pipelines to the Mediterranean. Between them, the two nations export just over 3 million bbl. per day, around 20% of gulf crude shipments, an amount that would not necessarily be critical at a time of a global oil glut. But there was the dire possibility that the Strait of Hormuz, 30 miles wide at its narrowest point, at the southern end of the gulf, might be closed because of the hostilities. Halting the flow of the supertankers that steam through the passage would have a devastating ripple effect (see following story) by preventing the shipment of oil from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the smaller gulf states. That kind of drop in world supplies would be intolerable.

Superpower Relations. The gulf war pitted not just Iraq against Iran but, on the sidelines, the U.S. against the U.S.S.R. Both superpowers have strategic interests in the area; neither will easily stand by if the other should make political gains there. Under the Carter Doctrine, proclaimed by the President last January, the U.S. is committed to keeping the Strait of Hormuz open; it would prefer to do so by diplomatic means, but it has little leverage in Baghdad or in Tehran. Though neither Iraq nor Iran made any attempt last week to interfere with shipping through the strait, the Soviets talked about U.S. “preparations for armed interference in the Persian Gulf,” obviously concerned that, in case of a blockade, the U.S. might resort to military action. In Washington, officials expressed fears that if the conflict dragged on, the Soviets, who are Iraq’s main armorers and who share a 1,250-mile border with Iran, would have a built-in advantage in case of internal complications in either country.

Regional Stability. The war brought cautious Arab support for Iraq, tempered by concern over possible retaliation by Iran. Yet despite their dislike for the Khomeini regime, the rulers of the conservative Arab gulf states were hardly happy with one more flash point in an area already troubled by the Arab-Israeli dispute in the west and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the east. An Iraqi victory would add a new name to the list of potential pan-Arab leaders, that of ambitious President Saddam Hussein, 43, who wants to make his country the dominant power in the gulf; defeat could bring him down. For Iran, the stakes were equally high. Khomeini was able to mobilize the nation at short notice. Repelling the Iraqis would probably strengthen his hold on the country for a while. Buckling under Iraqi pressure could invite fragmentation, perhaps even the dismemberment of Iran.

The threat of war had hung in the air since spring, when border clashes began to intensify and spread along the 760-mile frontier between the two countries. Traditional enemies, divided by ethnic and ideological differences, Iraq and Iran had come to a temporary accommodation in 1975 when Saddam, then Vice President, and the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi announced a frontier agreement during an OPEC summit in Algiers. The centerpiece of the accord was a change in the status of the Shatt al Arab, long a source of friction between the two nations. Under the Algiers agreement, the border was moved from the Iranian side of the disputed waterway to the middle of the estuary; in return, the Shah agreed to stop his support for Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq who had been battling the Baghdad government with increasing success. According to the Iraqis, the Shah also promised to return a parcel of disputed territory around Musian.

The agreement held as long as the Shah lived. Though Baghdad never forgot its Shatt al Arab concession, though it resented the Shah’s self-appointed role as the policeman of the gulf and worried about Iran’s steadily growing military strength, it reaped instant benefit from the accord. Without the Shah’s support, the Kurdish rebellion fizzled, allowing Iraq to concentrate its oil resources on fast-paced economic development and to emerge as a military power. But the squabble was renewed with the Shah’s demise, the Iranian revolution and the advent of the Khomeini era. Khomeini had spent 14 years in exile in Iraq during the Shah’s reign, but never concealed his dislike for the Iraqi reqime. Now, stressing old cultural and religious divisions, Tehran accused the Iraqis of fomenting unrest among the predominantly Arab population of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzistan province, and called on Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims, the majority in the country, to overthrow the Saddam government, which is dominated by Sunnis. Iraq in turn demanded amendment of the Algiers agreement. It also insisted on the return to “Arab” sovereignty of three small strategic islands—Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb—at the Strait of Hormuz that had been occupied by the Shah’s forces in 1971. Iran did not respond.

On Sept. 17, apparently convinced that Iran’s revolutionary convulsions had left the country divided and its military forces weak, Saddam made his move. Before Iraq’s National Assembly he declared the Algiers agreement “null and void.” Five days later full-scale fighting broke out.

For the Iranians and Iraqis living along the Iran-Iraq frontier, the war hardly came as a surprise. For months they had lived with increasingly sharp border battles, including artillery bombardments and occasional air raids as Iraq stepped up its drive to regain control of the Shatt and of the Musian region. The difference last week was the range and intensity of the fighting and the commitment of forces on both sides.

The war, the first fought in modern times around the gulf, began in the air early Monday morning. From airfields deep in Iraq, Saddam sent his warplanes to strike Iranian military bases, including Mehrabad airport only four miles west of Tehran; Mehrabad serves as a military field as well as Iran’s principal commercial airport. The Iraqi objective was straight from the military textbooks: to knock out the Iranian air force before it could ever get off the ground. The effort failed. Scarcely two hours after the attack, U.S.-made Iranian Phantoms were streaking toward two Iraqi bases in the Basra area. Then, beginning at dawn on Tuesday, the Iranian air force launched strikes against at least 16 different targets in Iraq. A principal one was Baghdad, the capital, as well as the military garrisons in the sprawling city of 2.8 million people along the banks of the Tigris River. Iranian planes also attacked the northern oil cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Erbil. Iraqi gunners sent up barrages of antiaircraft fire and ground-to-air missiles that lit up the skies and brought down a reported 67 Iranian planes.

Baghdad residents took the attacks calmly. Shops remained open, schools continued to hold classes, and youths wearing blue overalls and armed with fire extinguishers took positions in hastily erected tents in the city’s many traffic circles, ready to fight any blaze started by Iranian bombs. “We are ready for this war and have been for a long time,” a high school student told TIME Cor respondent Adam Zagorin. “Like the Iranians we are Muslims, but Khomeini is a devil who has forced his people against us.” Iraqi newspapers played up the propaganda aspects of civilian casualties caused by the bombings, showing pictures of mothers and children injured and in shock. Said the captions: “They fail to face an Iraqi soldier, but they turn to kill Iraqi children.”

On day two, the war took a more ominous turn: it singled out oil, the mainstay of both countries’ economies. Iranian naval vessels shelled oil terminals at Fao island, and the Phantoms returned to bomb and rocket Basra’s vast new petrochemical complex. Twenty-nine people were killed in that raid, some of them Britons, Americans and other foreign workers among a labor force of thousands. The foreigners and their families fled in cars and buses to the Kuwait border 15 miles away. “It all happened so fast,” said Briton Roger Elliott. “I was just sitting there getting my truck started when I looked up and saw these jets screaming towards me. The bombs exploded 50 yards away and I could feel the skin on my face being peeled off by the concussion.”

At about the same time the Iraqis sent their bombers against Iranian oil facilities across the Shatt al Arab at Abadan and farther south against Kharg island, where 14 tankers at a time can load crude. At Abadan, one of the biggest refineries in the world (587,000 bbl.-per-day capacity) and the principal source of fuel for Iran’s domestic needs, flames and smoke shot skyward. “There are going to be a lot of cold Iranians this winter as a result,” said a U.S. diplomat monitoring the fighting. In Tehran, the government decreed that no gasoline would be sold to private motorists for at least a week.

Meantime, Iraqi troops and armor crossed the frontier in force. The invaders mounted a multipronged drive aimed at Abadan, the nearby port of Khorramshahr, Ahwaz and Dezful, a vital pumping station on the Abadan-Tehran pipeline, and to the north around Kermanshah. The heaviest fighting, reported TIME Correspondent William Drozdiak, was around Khorramshahr, which was being pounded from three sides by Iraqi tank and artillery fire. Making his way through dust clouds raised by the armor, Drozdiak bumped into an Iraqi general, who gave him an impromptu briefing: “There is terrible fighting around Khorramshahr. Unfortunately we are not yet in control of the city.”

Iran admitted the loss of five border posts in the early fighting. But as the week went on, the Iranian defenses hardened and the Iraqis found themselves pressed to maintain their salients.

Indeed, the Iranians, in the view of military analysts, were doing surprisingly well against one of the Arab world’s strongest military forces (250,000). Since 1973, using oil revenues that now amount to $30 billion annually, the Iraqis had spent $8 billion to $9 billion on military hardware, most of it purchased from the Soviet Union. The shopping list included more than 330 MiG, Sukhoi and Tupolev fighters and bombers, along with tanks ranging from the standard T-62 model to the T-12, which is considered one of the world’s best. Iraq also is reported to have 1,000 huge tank transporters, acquired as a result of bitter experience. Rushing to support Syria and Egypt in the 1973 war against Israel, Baghdad dispatched its tank force on the long trek through Jordan and Syria to the Golan Heights, only to discover that most of the tanks had shattered treads and burned-out engines by the time they arrived. This time the tanks were ready to ride to battle on transporters.

To face this panoply of forces, Iran threw in units and equipment diminished by revolutionary confusion and the decimation of the military’s top echelons, but still formidable in regional terms. Its air force included 445 combat planes, among them not only 188 Phantom F-4s and 166 F-5s but also 77 advanced F-14 interceptors. The principal problems with the planes as well as with the Iranian navy and ground forces: lack of maintenance and spare parts. According to Western analysts, only eight of the F-14s were airworthy and one-third of the army’s 875 British-built Chieftain tanks were no longer serviceable. Army manpower was down from about 240,000 under the Shah to an estimated 180,000 as a result of desertions and purges; 250 generals had been replaced by inexperienced officers or by military-minded mullahs. Said a Pentagon expert: “In order to move full steam into a war like the one where they now find themselves, the Iranians should have been spit polishing, shining and checking that machinery day by day. Apparently a lot of it has just been sitting there since the revolution.”

Still the Iranians held. Regular forces were bolstered by a hasty call-up of reserves. The current Iranian year by the solar calendar is 1359, and Iran called up the class of 1356, meaning men who had completed reserve training in 1978. In addition, each of the hundreds of mosques in Tehran was required to deliver 22 militiamen to fight Yazid, a term used for the murderers of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who is venerated by Shi’ites as a saint and martyr. Whenever air raid sirens wailed, thousands of Teh-ranis rushed to their rooftops shouting “God is great.” Enthusiastic civilians almost shot down an Iranian F-4 trying to land at Mehrabad: they thought it was an Iraqi plane. Opposition parties like the left-wing Socialist People’s Mujahidin and the Marxist People’s Fedayan were captured by the patriotic fever and backed the war effort of President Abolhassan Banisadr’s government. Even Reza Pahlavi, 19, the Shah’s oldest son, who is studying at the American University in Cairo, volunteered his services from abroad as a fighter pilot.

The Iranians were inspired by Khomeini, who railed against Iraq’s “godless” rulers, dismissing them as pawns of “the great Satan.” Saddam was an “infidel guilty of blasphemy.” What particularly galled the Iranians was that in the wake of the revolution, Iraq had given sanctuary to a force of some 3,000 Iranian soldiers now known as the Iran Liberation Army and gathered by General Ghoylam Ali Ovisi, 59, the former military commander of Tehran. The I.L.A. was not involved in last week’s fighting but was reportedly ready to move into Iran behind the Iraqis.

As the war revved up, Tehran declared an embargo on Iraqi harbors and oil facilities like Basra and proclaimed Iranian territorial waters a “war zone.” Ships passing through Hormuz were advised by Iranian navy craft to avoid Iraqi ports. While for the most part the traffic—and the oil—kept flowing, some supertanker captains hove to. Off Kuwait, a fleet of the giant ships dropped anchor, waiting for the war to end.

Particularly at the outset, the war was largely shut off from the outside world, which could only guess at the ferocity of battle by communiques issued by both sides. By the fifth day, for instance, the Iraqis claimed to have shot down no fewer than 158 Iranian planes, about as many, experts figured, as the Iranians would have been able to get into the air. Propaganda was rife on either side. Iraqi television carried bulletins on the fighting, with commentaries on what “our heroic forces” had done to “the racist Persian enemy.” The Iranian media talked of Saddam Hussein’s “collusion with Israel.” Apparently counting on a quick and glorious kill, Saddam’s government initially treated the war as a kind of media event, issuing visas for 300 foreign newsmen and busing many of them to Baghdad from Jordan, across 500 miles of desert.

By week’s end Baghdad was claiming the recapture of the land the Iraqis consider theirs. The rail line from Iran’s southwest oil towns to Tehran was said to have been cut by Iraqi forces, and the border towns of Khorramshahr and Abadan, where the refinery was still burning days after the first bombardment, remained besieged. Western observers assumed that the Iraqi objectives were limited and doubted that they would try to advance much farther. The Iraqi army does not have the logistics to support a campaign deep in enemy territory. And if it tried to push toward Tehran, it would encounter the forbidding 12,000-ft. Zagros Mountains. Moreover, the Iranians were fighting so grittily that even skeptics in Tehran were impressed. Said a retired senior officer: “The soldiers were humiliated by the revolution and then by the revolutionaries. What the hell are they righting so ferociously for?”

Initial attempts to end the war failed. U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim convened the Security Council in an informal session on Tuesday, but all its members could agree on was to express “deep concern” and appeal to the combatants “to desist from all armed activity.” Said a U.S. official: “The Security Council is the logical place to sort this out, but neither regime has a history of paying much attention to the U.N.” Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, on good terms with both Saddam and Khomeini, offered his services to help end the war and visited both Baghdad and Tehran, but with no known results. Because most Arab nations supported Iraq, mediation from that quarter was all but ruled out. Said a U.S. analyst: “As this goes on, it will polarize the region. The Arab states will fall behind Iraq out of Arab solidarity while the fighting continues. In the long run, we have to be concerned about the crisis on nations already beset with insecurity.”

The U.S., which has no diplomatic relations with either country, knew from the start that its hands were tied. Said American University President Joseph Sisco, former Under Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs: “This is the first time in recent years that the U.S. has not been able to play even a diplomatic role in a significant Mideast conflict.”

As the battle continued along the Shatt al Arab and other segments of the Iraq-Iran border, Iraq came up with its own demands, which if met, it said, would end the hostilities. Having initiated the war, Baghdad laid down four conditions that might stop it. Iran would have to agree to respect Iraqi sovereignty over its own land and waters, would have to maintain good relations with its Arab neighbors along the gulf, would have to promise not to meddle in Iraq’s internal affairs, and as a kind of catchall, would have to refrain from “aggressive” activities.

The Iraqi plan did not get anywhere in Tehran. Recognizing Iraqi control over land and waters meant giving up the Shatt al Arab. Not meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs implied cutting links with the Shi’ites of Iraq, who represent half the country’s population and have long had close ties to the Shi’ites of Iran, particularly since their most holy shrines are in Iraq at An Najaf and Karbala. Iran, on hearing the terms, turned them down out of hand.

To help explain its case abroad, the Baghdad government already had sent Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to Moscow and Paris. He assured the Soviets, who apparently were as much surprised by the outbreak of war as the Americans, that Baghdad’s goals were limited, but he also pressed unsuccessfully for fast military resupply. Like Washington, Moscow was quick to proclaim its neutrality—understandable since it could not afford to offend either party. For the Soviets to openly back the Iranian regime would be to go against their ties and friendship treaty with Iraq. To back Iraq could mean the loss of a carefully nurtured Iranian connection. Thus Moscow contented itself with asking both countries to stop the fighting quickly. If they did not, the Soviets warned, the U.S. would take advantage. “While calling by word of mouth for neutrality in the Iranian-Iraqi conflict,” the Soviet news agency TASS said after the New York meeting between Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, “Washington is in fact building up tensions and making a choice between direct interference in the Iranian-Iraqi conflict and the possibility of launching international intervention in case the war between Iran and Iraq jeopardizes oil exports from the Persian Gulf area.”

In Paris, French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing told Tariq Aziz that the crisis was a “bilateral affair,” best solved by the region’s Islamic states. An Elysée spokesman later said that no spare parts for French weapons in the Iraqi arsenal would be forthcoming while the fighting continued. But he said that France would honor a $1.6 billion arms agreement with Iraq involving the sale of 60 Mirage F-l jet fighters, as well as tanks, antitank weapons, radar, guided missiles and patrol boats—all part of an Iraqi attempt to diversify its weapons inventory away from total dependence on the Soviet Union.

Part of the Iraqi-French deal covers the sale of a nuclear reactor—a development that has caused great anxiety in Israel, which fears that Iraq, one of the Jewish state’s archenemies, could develop a nuclear weapons potential. Indeed the Iran-Iraq conflict, the first recent major crisis in the region in which Israel is not involved, was being closely watched in Jerusalem. “That fight,” said an Israeli official acidly, “is proof that there is an inherent instability in the Middle East of which we are not a part.”

Always concerned about the spillover effect of events in the Arab world, Israeli analysts wondered how the battle would affect Israel’s eastern front, where Iraqi units fought alongside the Syrians during the 1973 war; the assumption was that Iraq’s commitment against Iran, another of Israel’s sworn enemies, would give the country some breathing room. Said one Israeli Arabist: “The best thing that could happen, from our point of view, is that both Iraq and Iran exhaust each other and kill one another off, and that they cannot rebuild their war machines for another 20 years.”

Most Western observers assume that the gulf war, Saddam’s vehicle to assume the mantle once worn by the Shah, cannot go on for too long. Unless resupplied by the Soviets, the Iraqis do not have the capability to wage a protracted battle, especially if they try to push deeper inland than the farthest penetration—45 miles—they claimed by week’s end.

Iran, which bought virtually all of its military equipment from the U.S., lacks spare parts for its arms, thanks to the U.S. embargo. Considering the shortages believed to exist, the Iranian performance and relatively quick reaction to the Iraqi thrusts were unexpected, and Iran may well be girding for sustained combat. But so long as it holds the U.S. hostages, the Washington tap is not likely to open.

If Iraq chooses to prolong the conflict, it will almost certainly be to inflict such punishment on the Iranian economy and military machine that they will not be a major factor in the gulf for some time to come. Iraqi Defense Minister Khairallah reiterated last week that his country coveted “not one inch of Iranian territory” beyond that “usurped” by Iran.

As it is, says one senior British official, “the Iraqis do not have the capa bility to mount an expeditionary force into central Iran.” Nor, in the British assessment, is Baghdad eager to occupy all of oil-rich Khuzistan. Such a venture would alienate neighboring Kuwait and the other conservative gulf states that Saddam has been courting.

Seldom has a war over such relatively simple issues for those waging it had so many dangerous, unpredictable and complex ramifications. A large match was lit last week in a very flammable part of the globe. The uncontrolled fires that now darken the skies over the refineries of Basra and Abadan are apt symbols for the gulf war.

—By Spencer Davidson. Reported by William Drozdiak/Basra and WilliamStewart/Beirut.

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