Iran-Iraq War II



If anything, the world looked upon the Iran-Iraq War with some relief. Iraq’s close ally, the Soviet Union, was distressed with Iraqi expansionist moves but happy to see the spread of Iran’s Muslim fundamentalism checked. The West, including the United States, felt that the war aided in both the containment of Iran and the exhaustion of Iraq.

On 29 February 1988, the “War of the Cities” began. Iraq began this most brutal of military strategies by sending Scuds loaded with explosives crashing into the civilian populations of Teheran, killing untold numbers of innocents. Through March and April of that year, as Iran struck back, the two nations evacuated their main cities, sending tens of thousands of civilians into the countryside. Historian Herbert Krosney writes, “With the winter rainy season coming to an end, both Iran and Iraq girded themselves for the offensives that each hoped would be decisive in turning the tide of war in its favor. Two weeks after Iraq launched the ‘War of the Cities,’ the Iranians retaliated with ground offensives deep in Iraqi territory. The main attacks were in northern Iraq, in Kurdistan. On March 14th, Iranian soldiers approached the Iraqi provincial capital of Suleymaniyah, also a center for the country’s Kurdish population. Spokesmen announced that this was in retaliation for the firing of SCUD-B missiles at Iranian civilians in Teheran and the holy city of Qom.” The Kurds, enemies of the Iraqi government, sided with the Iranians. When the Iranians occupied the Kurdish city of Halabja, Saddam Hussein unleashed his stockpile of chemical weapons on the civilians of Halabja; untold numbers were killed. Except for a few stories in the Western press, the full story of the massacre at Halabja remains a well-kept secret. One source on the Iran-Iraq War reports, “Four major battles were fought from April to August 1988, in which the Iraqis routed or defeated the Iranians.

In the first offensive, named Blessed Ramadan, Iraqi Republican Guard and regular Army units recaptured the al-Faw peninsula. The 36-hour battle was conducted in a militarily sophisticated manner with two main thrusts, supported by heliborne and amphibious landings, and low-level fixed-wing attack sorties. In this battle, the Iraqis effectively used chemical weapons, using nerve and blister agents against Iranian command and control facilities, artillery positions, and logistics points.” This battle and three subsequent pushes to quickly end the war resulted in 375,000 Iraqi casualties and 60,000 POWs. Still, Iraq had plunged deep into Iran, and effectively finished the Iranians’ chances of winning the war outright. Later that year, both nations signed a United Nations–brokered cease-fire. One of the oversight missions set up under this cease-fire was the United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group (UNIIMOG), set up in August 1988 under the command of General Slavko Jovic of Yugoslavia, with 350 officers from 24 nations.

Saddam Hussein passed off a bloody war and eventual stalemate as victory. In a parade honoring returning war veterans, he led the procession on a white horse, symbolizing victory. In Baghdad he erected the Arch of Swords—two huge arms, modeled after his own but 48 times normal size, embracing touching swords—out of armor and helmets captured from slaughtered Iranians. At the foot of the monument is a cascade of Iranian helmets. Author Simon Henderson relates of another monolith, “The Martyrs’ Memorial in Baghdad consists of two glazed blue domes, parted and offset to symbolize the course to heaven along which the spirits of all Muslim martyrs are said to travel. Constructed in an open area to imitate other famous monuments from Iraq’s history, such as ziggurats and the spiral minaret at Samarra, the monument is over 180 feet wide and 130 feet high. It took more than two years to build and was completed in 1983.” Along the shores of the Iraqi side of the Shatt al-Arab are statues of 99 Iraqi commanders killed during the war, their accusing fingers pointed at Iran.

One of the main arguments Saddam Hussein used for his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was that with the Iran-Iraq War he saved the Gulf States from a horrible fate at the hands of Iran. Discussing the Iraqi argument, Middle East scholar Walid Khalidi writes, “At horrendous cost in Iraqi lives (Saddam’s favorite phrase in Arabic is anhar al-damn, ‘rivers of blood’) and material assets, he, Saddam, blocked al-bawwabah al-sharqiyyah, ‘the Eastern Gateway’ to the Arab world in the face of Khomeini’s hordes. It is this that saved the other Gulf States, notably Kuwait, from certain ruin.” However, Saddam Hussein refused to acknowledge the dangerous fact that it was Kuwait, more than any other country that kept Iraq afloat during the war through the exportation of Iraqi oil in Kuwaiti tankers.

In the end, Iran refused to play a role in the Persian Gulf War, for whatever reason, although it condemned both the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent buildup of American troops in Saudi Arabia. However, did Iran arm the Sunni Muslims in Iraq, who rose up at the end of the war to do battle with Saddam Hussein’s troops during the massacres in the marshes of Basra? There is no evidence of this at this time. Obviously, Iran has yet to recover from the Iran-Iraq War, and may not do so until well into the twenty-first century.

The outlook for relations between Iran and Iraq as of this writing are impossible to predict. Although considered mortal enemies because of the costly war the two fought, there have been overtures in recent years, particularly at the height of Operation Desert Shield in September 1990, when Iraqi foreign minister Aziz flew to Teheran to meet with his counterpart, Ali Akbar Velayati, to discuss ways in which the Iranians could help the Iraqis circumvent the world embargo. The following day, the two countries restored full diplomatic relations. However, during the air war, although Iraqi planes flew to safety in Iran, Iran has so far refused to return them.

Shatt al-Arab Waterway

Formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Shatt al-Arab (Arabic: “stream of the Arabs”) begins at Al Qurnah (or Al Qurna), 64 kilometers from Basra. Chambers World Gazetteer relates that from Al Qurnah “it flows 192 kilometers southeast through marshland to discharge into the Arabian Gulf [at the head of the Persian Gulf]; in its lower course it forms part of the Iran-Iraq border; the delta is wide and swampy, containing the world’s largest date-palm groves; [it is] navigable for ocean-going vessels as far as the port of al Basrah [Basra].” The river’s chief tributary is the Karun River, which flows into Iran.

The Shatt al-Arab’s geographical significance is crucial to the foundation of trade among the small villages, and later nation-states, that sprang up along the Tigris and Euphrates. As the Reader’s Digest reports, “Nourishing the eastern half of the Fertile Crescent, which stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Nile delta, the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates gave life to the first civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. Among the cities that flourished along their courses were Nineveh on the banks of the Tigris and Babylon on the Euphrates. Indeed, the area where the two rivers converge is believed by some biblical scholars to have been the site of the Garden of Eden.” Because it plays a major trade role in the region, control of the waterway is vital. Since 1932 Iran and Iraq have verbally fought over which nation physically controls the Shatt al-Arab. The argument was considered settled when the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein (then vice-chairman of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council) signed the Algiers Agreement in 1975, in which Iraq resigned itself to controlling only a small section of the waterway in exchange for an end to Iran’s support of Kurdish rebels fighting inside Iraq. The agreement did not last long, however. In 1979 the shah was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists and, as Iraqi author Samir al-Khalil said, “Iran had already abrogated the Algiers Agreement through 187 border violations, all of which had allegedly taken place in the four-month period preceding the [start of the Iran-Iraq War, September 1980]. Numerous statements by Iranian leaders also proved their intent to ‘export’ the Islamic revolution. It followed, once the treaty was abrogated, that the Shatt al-Arab waterway had to revert back to Iraqi sovereignty according to all previous agreements. All naval craft along the Shatt were henceforth to fly the Iraqi flag, and navigation fees should be paid to Iraq.”

During the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War, the Shatt al-Arab was the scene of bitter fighting; untold numbers of troops on both sides were slaughtered in an attempt to control the waterway. At the end of the war, the Shatt al-Arab was filled with silt (it needed to be dredged constantly, and had not been for a long time because of the war) and the hulks of sunken ships. Except for the smallest of channels, it is now considered completely unusable, an ironic outcome considering its importance before the war.


The capital of Basra province in Iraq, Basra (also in Arabic: Busra, Bussora, or Bassorah) is located about 75 miles (120 km) from the Persian Gulf, and sits astride the all-important Shatt al-Arab waterway. Basra’s main harbor is al-Maaquil, located on the western side of the waterway. Across the waterway to the southeast is the Iranian port of Abadan. Both harbors played key roles during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988).

Founded about A.D. 636–638 by the Abbasid caliph Umar I, Basra was originally settled about 8 miles (13 km) southwest of its current location to take advantage of the Persian Gulf, at that time one of the most important waterways for trade and commerce in the world. Over the next several centuries, it became known for its rich culture, and was famed for its luxurious mosques and a notable public library. Under the Abbasids, it became an important center for science and commerce. With the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, Basra declined, but it was revitalized after Suleiman the Magnificent captured the city in 1546, making it once again an important commercial village. With the formation of the Ottoman Empire, Basra and the rest of what is now Iraq came under that authority. In the Ottoman Capitulations of 1661, the British became the dominating influence in the area, and they held onto this possession even after the formation of Iraq in 1920. During World War II, British soldiers occupied the port, making sure its vital harbor was not used by the Nazis. The discovery of oil made the port even more important for commerce. British withdrawal and Iraqi statehood made the port a significant link in the commercial redevelopment of the area.

In 1980 Basra was caught between the two feuding powers of Iran and Iraq in their attempts to economically cripple each other. As Iraq had no other port on either waterway, for them Basra was an important connection to the Shatt al-Arab and the Persian Gulf. During the conflict, Basra and Abadan were closed by rockets fired by both sides, scuttled and shattered ships, and piled-up silt, which needed to be removed frequently. With the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Basra suffered rocket and missile attacks from coalition forces. After the end of the war, the city was the site of the Shiite uprising against the regime of Saddam Hussein, but the effort collapsed after only a short time.

References: Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, Report by the Department of Defense, April 1992, 9; Henderson, Simon, Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein’s Ambition for Iraq (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991); Khalidi, Walid, “Iraq vs. Kuwait: Claims and Counterclaims,” in The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions, edited by Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Serf (New York: Times Books, 1991), 60; al-Khalil, Samir, Republic of Fear: The Inside Story of Saddam’s Iraq (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 269; Krosney, Herbert, Deadly Business: Legal Deals and Outlaw Weapons-The Arming of Iran and Iraq, 1975 to the Present (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993), 124; Pelletiere, Stephen C., and Douglas V. Johnson II, Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U. S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 1991), vii. Metz, Helen Chapman, ed., Iraq: A Country Study (Washington, DC: GPO, 1990), 232-235; Munro, David, ed., Chambers World Gazetteer: An A-Z of Geographical Information (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers, 1988), 585; Reader’s Digest Natural Wonders of the World (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, 1980), 342. Encyclopedia Americana: International Edition, Vol. 3 (Danbury, CT: Grolier, 1987), 333.