The Battle of Susangard

The rains had come in November 1980 and fighting along the extended front had died down through to the end of the year. The Iraqis had expected this would last until the weather improved in March, and the ground would be dry enough for military operations to resume. But in early January, the Iranians launched a series of offensives from north to south. The attack in the south, not surprisingly, received the main attention, as the Iranians attempted to drive the Iraqis out of Khuzestan. Unfortunately for the offensive’s prospects, the Iranians broadcast much of their tactical radio traffic en clair and thus warned the Iraqis as to what was afoot.

The fact that the Iranians chose to launch these offensives at such a bad time indicated the political pressures under which Bani-Sadr was working. He had been one of Khomeini’s close advisors when the ayatollah had been in exile in Paris; upon his return, Bani-Sadr had become the president of Iran. Almost immediately on the onset of hostilities, he was under pressure from the fanatics around Khomeini to attack the Iraqi invaders, because Allah was on Iran’s side. When Bani-Sadr did not act as quickly as the ayatollahs thought he should have, they attributed the president’s lack of action to outright treason. As one pro-Khomeini account of the war noted, “Bani-Sadr, after becoming the president and commander in chief, sought to build not an Islamic army, but one that was directly under his influence so that he could work [against] the Imam’s vision.” As a result of such political pressure, Bani-Sadr prematurely committed a disorganized regular army to a series of major offensives against the Iraqis to bolster his political position in Tehran and his influence with Khomeini.

The Iranian regular army conducted the January 1981 offensive with the Pasdaran under its control, something that raised suspicions within the clerical establishment. The plan, designed by the new leaders of Iran’s regular army, was ambitious. It aimed to smash the Iraqi armored forces surrounding Susangard, drive south behind Iraqi positions to Ahvaz, and then push on to Khorramshahr, having destroyed most of Iraq’s ground forces in the area. Had Bani-Sadr allowed the army to wait until the weather was better for major military operations, the Iranians might have succeeded to some degree, which might have had political overtones in Tehran.

Members of the revolutionary guard were already accusing Bani-Sadr of suffering from “Bonapartist tendencies” and feared a battlefield victory under the regular army might have encouraged a march on Tehran to seize power. However, the Iranian president rejected the advice to wait.

On 5 January 1981, the Iranian offensive began with much of Iran’s armored force attacking Iraqi positions near Dezful and Susangard. Accompanying Iranian armor was the army’s parachute brigade, most probably to help clear out the Iraqis from the urban terrain in the two cities it targeted. Iraqi signals intelligence appears to have warned the defenders as to what was coming. The Iraqi Army’s chief of staff described the scale and intensity of the battles when he informed Saddam that “I cannot imagine a battle like [this] in the area or the entire Middle East … [it] was walls of fire, one in the direction of the enemy and one in our direction.” In heavy fighting, some Iranian tanks achieved significant penetrations and even managed to surround the 9th Division’s command post. However, the battle ended up resembling the defeat of Soviet forces in May 1942 at Kharkov. The initial breakthrough soon foundered in heavy rains; the ground surrounding the roads becoming a morass. Armored fighting vehicles of both armies remained confined to the roads.

The advance took the lead Iranian units across the al-Karkh River as far as Hoveyzeh. However, due to the poor conditions, the Iranians failed to widen the salient’s neck. There, the Iranian tanks and supporting forces found themselves under fire from Iraqi tanks on both sides of the penetration. Despite the desperate conditions, the Iranians performed well at a tactical level, especially in tank gunnery. They destroyed approximately 100 of the 350 Iraqi tanks involved in the battle. The initial setbacks to Iraqi forces caused significant concern in Baghdad. Early reports described the give-and-take battle as two men pulling on a rope, “sometimes we go and sometime [they go].” In reply, Saddam commented to his staff “I don’t get mad about give and take; I get mad when someone leaves their position for no reason.” For a time, the Iranian attack produced a chaotic retreat of some of the 9th Division units. That division would soon establish a reputation among the Iraqi high command for gross incompetence.

Nevertheless, an extensive after-action report completed in late February by the commander of the 43rd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division indicated:

At 0830, on 5 January 1981, the racist Persian enemy began an intense artillery shelling towards the positions of our brigade contingents which were occupying their sectors of defensive responsibility in Khaffaji [Susangard] region …

The enemy followed his artillery shelling by an approach with three large main convoys, two from al-Kut – al-Hawashem – Umm al-Sukur – al-Jalaliya and the other one from Hawr al-Hawizeh. Each convoy included tanks, BMP combat vehicles, armored troop carriers, part of which were carrying anti-tank missiles, wheeled vehicles carrying 106mm anti-tank weapons … The fight against the enemy was severe and very fierce and could not be imagined. The enemy’s losses were significant with regard to tanks and special forces at the time. The enemy maintained the intensity of his attack with new armored units which advanced very quickly at the expense of the accuracy of [their] firing. Our units were able to destroy a large number of them.

Several months later, Saddam and his senior military staff received a number of reports on Iranian fratricide during these winter battles. Had they resulted from a disagreement among the Persians? Did units arrive on the battlefield in a state of “ignorance” as to situation, terrain, or enemy? Saddam noted the slaughter of Iranian volunteers appeared to be the way that the regular Iranian Army “deals” with volunteers. In the face of Iraqi firepower “it sends them [our] way and whoever gets killed … is fine.” Whatever the cause, the III Corps commander reported to Saddam that “[the Iranians] come to us looking poor and attacked our troops, and that’s when God’s mercy got active and our youth sweep them away with our machine guns.”

In a conversation during the battle in early January, Saddam zeroed in on a more troublesome aspect of the encounter, when some Iraqi units had panicked:

If they [the soldiers bearing the brunt of the initial Iranian attacks] had stood firm for just [a few] minutes, had they opened their tank fire and shot just one round from each tank and then retreated, that would have been bad [but] they could have hit a percentage of the enemy forces coming [against] them. The force that stands firm does not give up losses. I wish I knew the reason for this so I could punish them … It seems the enemy has brought his armor from everywhere and made us ineffective while they are in a very effective situation. This is attributable to the ignorance of the intelligence; there is no intelligence on the field.

The dictator then indicated the effect of the battle on his psyche:

I slept, yes, I slept. You may be surprised in spite of your knowledge of my sensitivity. I did not expect an Iraqi to retreat even an organized retreat. I mean, I despise it: How could an Iraqi [retreat without fighting?] I was upset with one point; the point is how this force gets ousted by a force smaller or equal to it? But this is what happened.

Perhaps sensing the long-term seriousness of frontline forces not standing their ground, Saddam added: “We have to change this tendency in training … by education … I know this from a long time ago. You tell an Iraqi to go forward, two of them run! And they take thousands with them. But if you say to him ‘go back,’ the first two at the front will go back and also take thousands with them.”

In fact, while Saddam was bemoaning the lack of effective resistance to the Iranian offensive, Iraqi forces were already fighting fiercely and inflicting heavy casualties on their attackers. The Iraqi corps commander had reacted with unusual dispatch, reflecting the signals intelligence available. With access to road networks on both sides of the Iranian advance, he concentrated Iraqi armor on the flanks of what turned out to be a murderous killing zone. The brigade commanders were no doubt assisted by the capture of the Iranian 92nd Division’s operations order early in the fighting. By the battle’s end, upwards of one hundred of Iran’s M-60s and Chieftain tanks were destroyed, with an additional 150 armored fighting vehicles captured. More importantly, the Iranians lost tanks they would not be able to replace given the Khomeini regime’s pariah status. In particular, the Iranian 16th Armored Division was nearly a complete wreck. On the other side, the Iraqis lost approximately 100 tanks, many reparable.

Almost 300 kilometers to the northwest of Susangard, frontline troops of the II Corps had found themselves after their initial advance 50 kilometers inside Iran without clear objectives. The Iraqi brigades, deployed in defensive positions at the foothills of the Zagros Mountains for four months, had been under constant artillery harassment from the increasingly organized Iranians. Although Iraqi positions blocked the roads leading southwest to the Iran–Iraq border, the Iraqi advance had failed to interdict the network of major roads to the north and east. On 14 January, Saddam’s senior military advisors briefed him on the situation of the 6th, 18th, and 50th Brigades. All three were showing signs of psychological “stress” after enduring near constant attacks.

The problem for Iraq’s military planners was that they had few infantry units available to secure the foothills near Ilam and the road network that made maneuver by armored vehicles dangerous. The army chief of staff reported losing thirty-five tanks in the attempt, some of which had been lost to American TOW missiles. Saddam’s frustration was clear: “Well, what is the solution … we do not want a common solution; we need a solution to face the current situation … Our current situation is that our units are losing too much.” The normally non-committal army chief of staff General Shanshal suggested that Iraq force Kurdish groups to carry the fight to the Iranians. Iraq should arm “partisans” to augment the armored units. The director of the GMID told Saddam that the Kurdish al-Jaf group could put 1,500 fighters into the hills to conduct ambushes and patrols. Their efforts would cover the flanks of Iraqi armor protecting the road networks. Saddam was not impressed: “We need a big operation to demoralize the Iranians [in the central sector], because they did not have any important losses at the beginning of the war … The use of the [tactics] they are mastering … will [result] in crushing our units one after another.”

Several days into the offensive, the Iraqi general staff described Iran’s tactics to Saddam as a series of “small local battles.” The army’s senior operations officer remarked that “[t]hey [the Iranians] want local battles. While their air force is working in one direction their army is working in [another]. The [Iranian] air force is planning on hitting targets that may not mean anything to the army.” Saddam, expressing some confusion at the direction of the various Iranian attacks, noted “his territory is occupied and yet he just chops at our territory.” Nevertheless, he appeared to miss the significance of the major Iranian defeat that had just occurred.

An assessment of Iranian and Iraqi tactics by Staff Brigadier Abdul Jawad Dhannoun, director GMID, concluded that the Iranians were capable of “limited success” in inflicting losses of soldiers and equipment, capturing Iraqis, and “raising the spirits of the Persians” through localized operations. He went on to note the failings of Iraqi tactics that “may be” enabling this Iranian approach: “The front of [Iraqi] units was [not being] covered by continuous surveillance. [Iraqi soldiers] [were staying] in shelters during the enemy artillery bombardments. There were no minefields and barbed wire within the defensive area of units. There was no alerting (either guard or screening force) in front of the principle defensive sites.”

Considering the Iran–Iraq War as a whole, the battles in January 1981 were militarily important for several reasons: the Iranians were unable to rebuild their armored forces because they could not buy enough first-class armored fighting vehicles. Politically, the Iranian defeat placed the secularists, Bani-Sadr in particular, in an increasingly tenuous situation, while it strengthened the hand of radical religious leaders who increased their attacks on the regular army and its reliability. The chroniclers of the Pasdaran efforts in the first years of the war argued that Iran’s president had launched the offensive with the express political purpose of placing the secularists in control of Iran. Nevertheless, the grand ayatollah had supposedly seen through the president’s efforts and understood that “this line of thought would have forced us once again to become dependent on the imperialist powers.”

The success in January led Saddam to tell his staff somewhat hopefully that “[the Iranian] defeat [will make] them realize that they will not be able to defeat the Iraqi Army.” However, while the Iraqis had repulsed the attack, they failed to build on that success and turn a defensive victory to operational utility. Despite Saddam’s 7 January order to “tell them [the Iraqi division commanders] to continue the momentum and not to [break off] contact with the enemy forces. The enemy will absolutely not be given a chance, [they] must be chased with all [we] have,” Iraqi counterattacks had culminated. Perhaps the heavy fighting had drained the Iraqis’ willingness to counterattack. Nevertheless, an equally plausible explanation is that their commanders simply lacked the imagination or will to pursue a beaten enemy. Certainly, Susangard was open to an Iraqi repost. But Saddam and his generals were unwilling to push reserves into the area to exploit the defeat of the Iranian armored forces.

Saddam had begun to realize the war would not be short as early as late October 1980. He noted to his senior military leaders:

Yesterday, I was speaking with the Pakistani minister. He said to me, no, they [the Iranians have] started to understand. I told him they do not understand. He said the whole world knows that the Iraqi Army is victorious and that they [the Iranians] are defeated. I told him that they do not understand, because they have no idea of what defeat means … The situation, the situation is of denial … he [Khomeini] will not feel anything until blood is at his feet … and then he will say to his soldiers “advance” and the soldiers will say they will not advance … because you have made me lose my faith.

Saddam reiterated his belief that the war would last a long time in conversation with his military advisors in early spring 1981. He described the pattern of future events with surprising accuracy:

We start another operation so that we can keep them [the Iranians] occupied … so we do not give them a chance to pull together and start an [offensive] … I think they are not going to give up. They will start another offensive and that is it. What will they do afterwards? … They will begin to think. They will give themselves a year so that they can secure military supplies and American spare parts … We will then have to think what to counter within that case. The dead will not come to life again in this short period of time.

In March 1981, while discussing a corps commander’s request to be allowed to use six Luna missiles in an upcoming operation, Saddam argued that the Iraqis should use these missiles against more lucrative military and psychological targets than enemy troop concentrations. This sparked a conversation between the dictator and his military advisors about how the Iraqis could use such missiles to best effect in the future:

SADDAM: … the missiles [could] be used tactically … in [a] chemical war?

HEAD OF THE PRESIDENTIAL COUNCIL: And bacterial war, also.

SADDAM: Yes.

CHIEF OF STAFF OF THE ARMY: The missile?

SADDAM: Yes, it can be used in bacterial and chemical war.

CHIEF OF STAFF OF THE ARMY: It can be used for carrying … warheads.

SADDAM: And place containers in it.

AIR FORCE AND AIR DEFENSE COMMANDER: The missile warhead will be replaced by [chemical and biological] containers.

SADDAM: Let’s start the implementation of this program.

A briefing for Saddam in May 1981 suggests how senior officers were describing the military effectiveness of their ground forces to the dictator. The reporting officer described his favorable impressions of one of the two divisions he had recently visited:

The … officers, sir, are doing a great job … The major general, sir, of the second division is very organized and excellent in training his soldiers. When I attended their training, he presents his regiment by numbers and in a very organized way. Everyone moves forward very smoothly, as if the major general has measured every inch … like a robot … everyone knows his position and his duty, very impressive sir!

It is doubtful whether Saddam recognized the weaknesses in such a top-down approach. After all, everything the division commander was doing conformed exactly with the intellectual and cultural nature of Ba’ath ethos.

As the Iranians licked their wounds, contact along the front declined to artillery exchanges. This stalemate led the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to attempt a brokered peace. In January 1981, a conference of the OIC’s foreign ministers and diplomats met in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It comprised forty-seven Islamic states that were to “reinforce our solidarity and set in motion the process of our renaissance.” Iraq forcefully pressed its case. Yet, the best Saddam could muster was a lukewarm restatement of UN Security Council Resolution No. 479 expressing “deep concern at the continuation of hostilities between two Islamic countries” and a call for an immediate ceasefire. The problem of being forced, at least publicly, to choose sides in a conflict portrayed by the combatants as a struggle between pan-Arab and pan-Islamic philosophies proved difficult, if not impossible, for the members.

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