On January 21, with the front appearing to have stabilized, the Iraqi president addressed the Iranian people in a solemn radio broadcast in which he renounced his territorial claims and proposed a comprehensive peace plan for Iran and Iraq. The plan was based on four principles: the total and reciprocal withdrawal of armed forces to the internationally recognized borders, the exchange of all prisoners of war, the rapid signing of a nonaggression treaty, and noninterference in each country’s interior affairs. Tariq Aziz traveled to Moscow, while Taha Yassin Ramadan traveled to Beijing to ask the Soviet and Chinese authorities, respectively, to pressure Tehran to accept the peace plan. At this stage only the Soviet Union and China seemed able to influence the Iranian regime. Yet, once again, the Iranians proved inflexible. Parallel negotiations conducted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the nonaligned countries were equally fruitless.
On January 23 Ali Khamenei declared that Iran would refuse to negotiate as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. Rafsanjani went one step further and stated he was prepared to purchase weapons from the United States, hoping to drive a wedge into the complex relations between Baghdad and Washington. While he was at it, he visited the southern front to inspect his troops and galvanize them for the resumption of combat, asking them for a final push. In a burst of lyricism, he qualified the offensive as “the mother of all battles.” He called in four additional Pasdaran divisions. The Iranians now had 150,000 combatants standing by to cross the Jassem Canal and the artificial channel and press on to Basra. General Jamal had only 40,000 men to fend them off, but they were supported by 600 tanks and 400 cannons. On January 29, 1987, the frenzied Iranians crossed the Jassem Canal and rushed the enemy positions. Their commander, Mohsen Rezaee, ran from one end of his layout to the other to encourage his troops. For seventy- two hours the human waves succeeded each other without interruption to submerge the enemy defenses. The losses were tremendous, but the Iranians did not seem to be deterred. Iraqi soldiers watched the bodies pile up in front of their machine guns. Iranian combatants could even weave their way to the foot of the Iraqi trenches by taking cover behind walls of mangled bodies, then throw their grenades. Next the Iranians made their way over these macabre obstacles and emptied their magazines at their adversaries, gradually pushing them back.
On February 1 the Pasdaran broke through the Jassem Canal, forcing the Iraqis to withdraw to their next- to- last line of defense. The Iranians were now only seven miles (twelve kilometers) from Basra and could see its outlying areas and some of its buildings. In Tehran, Rafsanjani reveled in his success and pressed his generals to commit all their reserves to the battle. Yet now that the troops were not as tightly locked in battle, combat ground to a halt because the Iraqi artillery could carry out devastating barrage fire without worrying about striking its own soldiers. Iraqi firepower was so intense that the shell-battered landscape was lastingly altered. Twenty-five years later, aerial views of the sector still revealed an area riddled with craters. To further disrupt the Iranian attack, the Iraqis massively resorted to battle gas and called in their heavy Ilyushin 76 four- engine jets, which flew high above the battlefield and dropped pallets of napalm canisters, horribly burning Iranian soldiers. On the Iranian side, with logistics flagging and a limited stockpile of shells, the Pasdaran could only count on their numbers to bear them to victory.
At the Gates of Basra
On February 11, 1987, on the occasion of the eighth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini broke his silence and made a public speech in which he compared the war to “a holy crusade that must continue until the final victory and the departure of the tyrant of Baghdad.” He invited young Iranians to join the army and go to the front without delay, for the Iraqis were repelling one assault after another. Mohsen Rezaee was granted additional reinforcements to make up for losses. On the other side, General Jamal was given two new infantry divisions from the 6th and 7th Corps to relieve his exhausted infantrymen.
On February 19 the Pasdaran’s commander, eager to take action, committed all his forces to another assault. Once again, the clash was infernal. Iraqi firepower initially succeeded in holding back the enemy, but the Pasdaran and Basijis were so driven that they managed to breach the Iraqi layout at several points. To avoid being surrounded, Iraqi troops were forced to withdraw to the last line of defense protecting Basra, five miles (eight kilometers) from the city. In Baghdad, General Aziz hesitated regarding the approach to follow. Overwhelmed by how events were developing, he proved incapable of adapting to the new realities of the war he was discovering. On the field General Jamal traveled to the front lines, adjusting his layout with the assistance of Adnan Khairallah. He lifted the soldiers’ spirits and accelerated the evacuation of civilians. Jamal’s ammunition depots were well stocked and he considered his defensive layout flawless.
On February 23 Mohsen Rezaee launched his troops at the last Iraqi line of defense. The frenetic Iraqis beat back the human waves one after another. Their tanks were all put to work tearing apart the infantrymen assaulting their positions in tight ranks. On February 26 the Iranians, exhausted and running out of ammunition, decreed the end of Karbala 5. Tehran let its troops catch their breath for a few weeks, long enough to reorganize and reinforce. This operational break led to the end of urban bombings, which had killed 3,000 in Iran and 1,000 in Iraq over the course of six weeks. Saddam Hussein took advantage of the lull to replace General Aziz with General Nizar al-Khazraji, who had previously been the commander of the 1st Corps. This brilliant, charismatic, humble, and highly professional officer could also be utterly ruthless when required. Adnan Khairallah, who had pushed for his appointment, appreciated his uprightness and talent. Khairallah was convinced that al-Khazraji’s presence at the head of the armed forces would allow Iraq to reverse the trend and regain the initiative.
On March 3 Iran mounted the Karbala 7 offensive in Iraqi Kurdistan to maintain pressure on Iraq. Concurrently, the Turkish army launched a large-scale operation against the PKK on Turkish territory. The Turkish government immediately notified the Iranian regime that it would not allow it to seize Kirkuk or Mosul. Rafsanjani played for time, fully aware that the force ratio was unfavorable to him both on the military and the economic planes. He knew that Turkey was turning a blind eye to the weapon shipments Libya and Syria were still sending to Iran via its territory. Determined to ease tensions, he traveled to Ankara and invited President Evren to visit Tehran as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the Iranian 28th and 46th divisions had advanced about ten miles (fifteen kilo- meters) across a snowy landscape in the direction of Rawanduz with the support of KDP peshmergas. On March 9 with the city within their sight, they were ordered to stop their advance. The Iranian regime did not want to vainly provoke the Turkish government. The two nations had taken great care to avoid clashing since the late seventeenth century, including during the two world wars. It would have been foolish to challenge this policy in pursuit of highly debatable advantages.
During the month of March Iranian troops maintained the siege of Basra and prepared a last- ditch offensive. Their inadequate logistics chain was struggling to keep combatants supplied with food, drinking water, and ammunition. For their part, the Iraqis pounded enemy lines with their artillery and reinforced their own defenses. Saddam Hussein lucidly imagined the worst and reassured his generals: “As the supreme leader of the Iraqi state, I can tell you very clearly that even if Basra were to fall it would not be the end of the world. . .. We would continue to fight, and even if they reached the doors of the Palace of the Republic in Baghdad, we would still fight them until we pushed them back across the border. They are exhausted. We are strong. We will win.”
During the night of April 6 to 7 Iranian command finally attacked (Operation Karbala 8): 40,000 Pasdaran attempted to breach the last line of defense protecting access to Basra. Despite their courage and determination, they failed. The Iraqis had mastered defensive combat and had terrifying firepower at their disposal. Their Katyusha rocket launchers and ultramodern cannons relentlessly hammered the assailants. Each time their infantrymen had to give a little ground, their tank crews counterattacked and regained the territory lost. This bloodbath lasted four days. On April 9 and 12 the Iranian regime went against its principles and tried to win the battle by using chemical weapons for the first time. At nightfall Iranian artillery poured phosgene gas in the Iraqi 3rd Army Corps’ sector. These bombings caused only minimal Iraqi losses (twenty dead and 200 wounded) and did not suffice to break the defensive layout around Basra. They did, however, alert the Iraqi intelligence services, who informed Saddam Hussein that Iran was developing a tabun production plant in Marvdasht, near Shiraz, with the help of North Korean technicians. Iraq retaliated by spraying the assailants with mustard gas.
Meanwhile, Tehran had launched another diversionary attack (Karbala 9) in the sector of Qasr-e-Shirin. For four days the Iranian 25th and 84th Divisions battled the Iraqi 21st Division and took control of four strategic hills dominating the road to Baghdad. Yet the Iraqis did not fall into the trap and merely reorganized their defenses with what was on hand, without deploying additional reinforcements.
In mid-April the worn- out and demoralized Iranians ended the assault and put a stop to the Battle of Basra, which had lasted a little over three months and cost them terrible losses: at least 40,000 fatalities and twice as many wounded. The Pasdaran had been hit particularly hard. A quarter of their most hardened officers were killed in the battle, including General Hossein Kharrazi, cut down by the explosion of an Iraqi shell. Rattled, they retreated to their positions and kept up the siege of Basra. The Iranian government tried to tone down this frightening toll by publicizing the 1,750 prisoners (including two generals and ten colonels) and twenty- seven square miles (seventy square kilometers) they had captured and by emphasizing the extent of Iraqi losses: 10,000 dead, not to mention the 150 tanks destroyed and the ten aircraft brought down by their anti-aircraft defense (principally attack helicopters). Despite the losses incurred, Saddam Hussein was delighted: Basra, which had been on the verge of falling, was saved. He congratulated his generals for this “superb victory” and named it “the Great Harvest” for the impressive number of Iranians killed.
Hungry for revenge, the Iranians launched the Karbala 10 offensive in Kurdistan on April 14. They wanted to show the Iraqis that their army could still shake them up. But their heart was no longer in it. For two weeks three of their divisions, supported by a few thousand PUK peshmergas, gained a few square miles (a few square kilometers) in the sec- tors of Sulaymaniah and Halabja, without succeeding in taking either of these cities. The facts were unavoidable: the exhausted Iranian army no longer had the necessary resources to maintain these costly all-out offensives. The Iraqi army was probably not ready to go back on the offensive, but it was strong enough to durably resist Iranian military pressure. The stalemate on the terrestrial front was total. This was a setback for Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had publicly committed to defeating Iraq by the end of March 1987. Bitter and frustrated, the Iranian speaker of Parliament was forced to come up with a new strategy.