Iran-Iraq War: Iran Launches Limited Offensive

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Issue Date: November 16, 1984

Iran-Iraq War:
Iran Launches Limited Offensive

  • Shipping War Continues

  • Bonn Curbs Chemical-Plant Exports

  • U.S. Panel Finds Iraqi Advantage

  • Iraq Ready to Renew U.S. Ties

Iranian forces Oct. 18 attacked Iraqi border positions northeast of Baghdad in their first major ground offensive in eight months. The new fighting brought the customary claims of major victories by both sides, but most military analysts saw it as a limited push and not the massive Iranian "final offensive" that had been expected earlier in the year. [See 1984 Iran-Iraq War: Iran Dismisses 5 Cabinet Ministers, 1984 Iran-Iraq War Escalates, Civilian Targets Hit; Iraq Claims Kharg Attacked]

The attack was concentrated in the high border region northeast of Baghdad, from which Iran claimed that Iraq had been shelling Iranian towns. Apparently suspecting a diversion, Iraq struck at Iranian positions at the southern end of the battlefront, where Iran had amassed at least 250,000 troops months before, and where a struggle for control of a marshy border region continued. Although the new fighting was reported to be intense, it remained concentrated along the central border. Iran appeared to make only limited territorial gains, and by Oct. 24, after six days of battle, both sides were reported digging in at new positions along the front.

On the southern battlefront, in the marshes along the Shatt al-Arab waterway north of Basra, Iraqi forces had taken advantage of the long lull to build up their defenses with new Soviet-supplied tanks and other arms.

Iraq's southern defenses were augmented by the continued expansion of a huge artificial lake near Majnoon Island, constructed with earthworks thrown up by Iraqi military engineers and fed by the waters of the Tigris River. The lake, still growing, was reported July 30 to be about 15 miles long and one-half to three miles wide (25 kilometers by one to five kilometers, respectively). Military analysts said it served as a formidable barrier to an Iranian ground assault. [See 1984 2 Iranian Jets Downed by Saudis Over Persian Gulf; U.S. Planes Assisted Action]

Shipping War Continues

Iraq's campaign to blockade Iranian oil exports from the Kharg Island terminal at the head of the Persian Gulf continued at full force since its resumption in early August. Iran responded with its own strikes at oil shipping from ports of Saudi Arabia and its allies. [See 1984 Iran-Iraq War: Iran Dismisses 5 Cabinet Ministers]

According to an Aug. 18 news story, Lloyd's of London, the international insurance underwriters, had calculated that there had already been 38 successful attacks on gulf shipping in 1984, in which 18 crewmen had been killed and 27 wounded. The Iraqi attacks continued with air strikes on tankers Aug. 18 and 23, and Iran apparently responded with a rocket attack on a ship heading for a Saudi port Aug. 27.

Despite the harassment of shipping, Iran's oil exports from Kharg through the end of August were reported holding at about 1.8 million barrels a day.

Iran was reported Sept. 1 to be closing the Kharg Island terminal for about 10 days to repair damage caused by Iraqi air attacks, but Iran continued to export oil at reduced levels from other ports. On Sept. 11, Iran was reported to be setting up a shuttle service that would use three recently purchased supertankers to carry oil from Kharg to foreign tankers waiting outside the gulf. Oil industry sources said the tankers would be able to move 400,000 to 600,000 barrels a day--one-quarter to one-third of Iran's normal exports.

After a two-week lull, Iraq resumed its air attacks with a series of strikes on shipping Sept. 13-17. In one of the most serious incidents to date, on Sept. 13, Iraqi missiles hit a West German oil-supply vessel, killing 11 crewmen and officers. Iraq also claimed another warning strike on the Kharg Island terminal itself Sept. 20. Iran denied the claim.

Another three-week lull in the shipping war was broken Oct. 8 when Iraqi air-to-surface missiles struck a Hong Kong-owned supertanker, the World Knight, setting it ablaze and killing at least seven of its crew members, including two British officers. The blaze was not extinguished for two days.

The raids continued into late October, and on Oct. 19, U.S. Navy vessels helped rescue the crew of a Panamanian-registered support ship that had apparently been struck by an Iraqi missile.

Bonn Curbs Chemical-Plant Exports

The West German government Aug. 7 announced that it was imposing strict controls on the export of equipment that could be used to make chemical weapons.

U.S. intelligence in March had warned that a West German pesticide plant sold to Iraq could be converted to manufacture nerve gas, and the West German announcement reportedly followed months of pressure from the U.S.

Iraq was widely believed to have made mustard gas in its own plants, but news accounts Aug. 7 said the West German-built plant was not yet completed. [See 1984 Iran-Iraq War: U.N. Reports Iraqi Gas Warfare]

West Germany Sept. 5 said Iraq was considering a request to allow West Germany to inspect the site.

Iran continued to charge Iraq with use of chemical weapons on the battlefield. According to the Times of London July 4, Iran had supplied the United Nations with a list of 24 Iraqi attacks with chemical shells or bombs since a U.N. team had reported from the war zone in March. [See 1984 Iran-Iraq War: U.N. Reports Iraqi Gas Warfare]

U.S. Panel Finds Iraqi Advantage

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Aug. 27 issued a staff report that said the military balance in the Iran-Iraq war had shifted in recent months to Iraq. It said the shift was the result of "massive arms sales" to Iraq by the Soviet Union and France and an effective U.S.-led boycott of arms sales to Iran.

"Iran has received virtually no major military end items in two years and has had to cannibalize spare parts to keep equipment operating," the study said.

The staff members, who visited Iraq and the Persian Gulf states but not Iran, said Iraq now had a substantial edge in most military hardware. By its estimate, Iraq had four or five times as many operational combat aircraft as Iran, more than twice as many tanks and three to four times as many armored personnel carriers. Iraq had matched Iran in ground forces along the border, with an estimated 500,000 regular troops on each side, the study said.

The panel foresaw no early end to the war, but it said that Iranian policy "appears to be in a state of flux" because of the likelihood that a major ground offensive would fail. "Several key Iranian leaders appear to be reaching the conclusion that the costs of continuing military efforts are too great," the report said. At the same time, it said, Iran "faces a dilemma" because "lack of victory could destabilize the government."

Iraq Ready to Renew U.S. Ties

The U.S. and Iraq would soon announce the restoration of diplomatic relations, according to State Department officials quoted in the Wall Street Journal Nov. 8. The story said the announcement would be made during a visit to the White House by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

In an interview published Oct. 12, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had been quoted as saying that he was already to consider reestablishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. after the U.S. elections Nov. 6. A State Department official Oct. 12 said the U.S. would "welcome" such a move.

Iraq had severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The U.S. had long considered Iraq a radical Soviet client, but the two countries had drawn closer during the Iran-Iraq war. The U.S. had dropped Iraq from its list of "terrorist" nations in 1982 and had taken recent steps to bolster Iraq in its war effort against Iran. [See 1983 Other International News: Iraq Hits Iran Over Kuwait Bombs, 1982 Other Iran-Iraq War Developments; Search for Arms Continues]

The U.S. Oct. 18 confirmed that it was considering an Iraqi request to purchase 45 Chinook helicopters made in Italy under U.S. license. The aircraft were exportable as civilian vehicles but could be put to military use.

In recent months the U.S. had also supported Iraq in United Nations votes condemning Iran for attacks on oil shipping and had led an international boycott on arms sales to Iran. The U.S. Sept. 28 said it was tightening those Iranian export restrictions further in the wake of the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, in which Iran was implicated. [See 1984 Lebanon: U.S. Said to Have Been Warned of Bomb, 1984 2 Iranian Jets Downed by Saudis Over Persian Gulf; U.S. Planes Assisted Action]

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