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Saddam's Wars: The Iran-Iraq War

Lloyd Busch is the author of "Passive Resistance", a book on non-violent action, and has been published in the "Journal of Theoretics".

A Centuries Old Quarrel

After the Shah of Iran fell in 1979 to extremists Shia Muslims, relations with Sunni controlled Iraq soured quickly. The animosity between Iraq and Iran goes back for centuries, as far back as the beginning of recorded history when conflicts between Mesopotamia and the Persians. While the reason for the war was over a border dispute this dispute stretched back to conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire which began in 1555. Among the numerous treaties between the two empires areas of Iraq were given to Iran. One area of contention was the Iranian controlled province of oil-rich Khuzestan.

Iraq began provoking secessionists movements within the disputed areas of Iran, while Iran was undoubtedly supporting and fomenting secessionists in Iraq. Iraq formally broke diplomatic relations with Iran when Iran claimed sovereignty of several islands and disputed areas. Also in response Iraq deported 70,000 Iranians from and seized their properties.

The final instigation of conflict was the Shatt al-Arab waterway which Iraq conceded to Iran in 1975 for normalized relations after sporadic battles. In September of 1980, Saddam renounced a border treaty that he had signed with Iran in 1975 which ceded half of the Shatt al-Arab waterway to Iran, this is a strategic waterway which is Iraq's only access to the sea. In 1937 Iran and Iraq came to agreement which gave Iraq control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Iran began to support the Iraqi Kurdish rebellion in the early 70's, Iran agreed to end its support of the Kurdish insurgency at the Algiers peace talks in 1975 in exchange for Iraq to share the Shatt al-Arab waterway with Iran.

Saddam, believing Iran was still weak, isolated, and disorganized from the coup, launched a large-scale invasion of Iran. Saddam predicted a quick victory in which the land formerly ceded and more territory could be seized. Saddam also hoped to assert Iraq as the dominate power in the Middle-East. While Iraq made some early successes the war quickly stagnated and dragged on for eight years. The war was very similar to WWI including the use of chemical weapons, trench warfare, human wave attacks, bayonet charges, machine gun posts, and barbed wire.

Iranian Howitzer


From Blitzkrieg to Stalemate

Saddam Hussein felt that a successful invasion of Iran would leave Iraq as the sole dominate power in the Middle East with Iraq gaining large Iranian oil reserves and complete control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Saddam also believed that the newly empowered Shia government of Iran would pose a serious threat to Saddam's Sunni government, especially since Saddam had been brutal in suppressing the Shia majority of Iraq and fearing that Iran would instigate a similar overthrow of Saddam's regime as happened in Iran. Saddam falsely believed that the Iranian Sunnis would join the Iraqis in the war, Iranian nationalism ran deep resulting in very few Iranians helping the Iraqis during the war.

The full-scale invasion of Iran began on September 22nd, 1980. Iraq used for justification the assassination attempt on Tariq Aziz, the foreign minister, which was blamed on Iran. On this date Iraqi planes struck Iranian targets as Iraqi troops advanced well into Iran on three separate fronts. Iraqi troops launched a full-scale invasion along a front stretching 500km (300 miles). The Iraqi forces were well equipped and organized, quickly overwhelming the small, disorganized border forces. After Iraq seized the oil-rich province of Khuzestan the Iranian resistance began to stiffen. Iran began blockading Iraq with its superior naval force and by January 1981 the war was entering a stalemate phase.

By 1982 Iran, with its internal dissent pacified and their hold on power firmly established, had pushed Iraqi forces back onto Iraqi lands. Iran quickly began to capture lands in Iraq, targeting areas with large Shia majorities. Throughout the remainder of the war Iran would make gains only to quickly lose them, with the front lines constantly shifting back and forth. With the increased desperation Iraq began using chemical weapons against Iranian troops and eventually on both Iranian and Iraqi civilians.

Iraq also began to strike civilian installations with missiles, attacking Iranian oil sites, and Iranian merchant shipping. Economic targets became a huge priority for both sides as the war stalled, each side trying to bled the other of funding. Iraq, realizing their victory was no longer possible sought to merely prevent an Iranian victory and to force Iran onto the negotiating table though a continued stalemate and through international pressure.

An Iranian soldier wearing a gas mask during the Iran-Iraq War

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Saddam Resorts to Using WMD

Saddam had felt the war with Iran would be swift, Iran had the largest military in the region but Iraq's military was more modern and Saddam felt that with the sudden shift in power from the end of the Shah regime that Iran was in too much disarray to defend itself effectively. The major aspect which Saddam did not take into account was population inequality, Iran had a population of 55 million people while Iraq had a population of around 20 million. Iran showed no qualms about losing thousands of citizens in huge human wave attacks and as the war began to stall the tide shifted into Iran's favor fairly quickly. The Iranians didn't need technology to send millions of people in wave after wave to overwhelm the vastly outnumbered Iraqi's.

The war quickly stalled as Iran gained air superiority, allowing for greater movement of troops with the support of helicopters and aircraft. By 1982 most of the land lost to the initial Iraqi invasion were seized back by Iran. The Iraqi military under orders from Saddam retreated from Iran and took up defensive positions in Iraq. Iran rejected the peace plans and continued with its counter-offensive into Iraqi territory. The war slipped into a trench war, one of which Iraq was almost destined to lose and by 1983 the war was entirely in Iran's favor. This is when Saddam chose to use chemical weapons, in an attempt to thwart the massive human waves and in an attempt to regain lost territory.

In August 1983 Iraq launched its first series of chemical weapon attacks causing hundreds of casualties. Iraq Fired over 500 ballistic missiles at Iranian targets including civilian sites and at major cities. After 1984 Iraq began using chemical weapons extensively, twenty thousand Iranians were killed by mustard gas and other nerve agents such as tabun and sarin. During operation Ramadan Iran sent five separate human wave attacks which were cut down by the Iraqi defenses and chemical weapons including mustard gas. Also during the attack Iran ordered child-soldiers to run into the Iraqi minefields in order to clear a path for the Iranian soldiers, needless to say these children suffered high causalities.

War of the Cities

In February 1984 Saddam ordered the bombardment of eleven cities that he had selected, the attack killed civilians indiscriminately. Iran soon retaliated against Iraqi cities, and thus began the “war of the cities”. Iraq began bombing more strategic Iranian cities in 1985 with Tehran bearing the brunt of the attacks. The attacks began with bombers, though Iraq quickly switched to the sole use of missiles including scuds and the al-hussein missile in order to minimize loses to its air force. Iraq used a total of 520 of these missiles against Iranian cities.

In 1987 Iraq began retaliating against Iran over the failed attempt to capture Basra. The attacks targeted 65 Iranian cities and included the bombing of civilian neighborhoods. In one attack 65 children were killed when Iraq bombed an elementary school. Iran retaliated for these bombings by launching scud missiles against Baghdad striking a school in Iraq. Iran suffered nearly 13,000 casualties in this war of the cities.

As the war stalled both sides began attacking economic targets and civilian targets in an attempt to remove the other sides financing and will to continue. In October of 1986 Iraqi aircraft began attacking civilian aircraft and passenger trains. Iraqi aircraft also attacked the Iran Air Boeing 737 which was unloading passengers at the Shiraz International Airport.

Throughout the Iran-Iraq War merchant and civilian ships were targeted by both sides in an economic war. Both sides were financing their war in large part by the sale of oil, by attempting to prevent the other other side from exporting oil each nation was attempting to remove the war funding of their enemy. Therefor the predominate target of each side was oil tankers, the tankers were not just owned by Iraqi and Iranians but tankers of neutral countries were targeted as well. The tanker war served another purpose for Iraq other than economic, by bringing attention to the world stage of the conflict Iraq was hoping the Iranians would be pressured into accepting a peace settlement. Iraq used extensive numbers of underwater mines to blockade Iranian ports.

Destruction of War


Cause and Effect

In July of 1987 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 598, calling for both sides to cease-fire and withdraw to the prewar borders. Iran refused, still hoping a final round of attacks would result in victory. After these offensives failed, and Iranian forces began to lose more ground, Iran had no choice but to concede to a draw. Khomeini finally endorsed Resolution 598 in July of 1988 and on August 20th, 1988 both sides ceased fighting in accordance with the resolution. Hostilities continued up until August 20th, 1988, and prisoners of war were not fully exchanged until 2003. The war ended in 1988 with the borders near where they were prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Despite the length and cost of the war neither side made any gains either territorial or political, and the war was devastating to both sides economies. Also the issue which instigated the war remained unresolved.

The Iran-Iraq war was one of the most tragic and deadly events of the last half of the 20th century causing up to a million human casualties. Some estimates put the number of killed by the war up to 1.5 million people. Other estimates claim over two million casualties, exact estimates are not possible since attacks on civilians, the use of civilians in battle, among other variables, including both sides playing down losses and overestimating their opponents losses can never be firmly established. Iran suffered over 100,000 casualties from Iraqi use of chemical weapons alone. According to a 2002 article in the Star-Ledger “Nerve gas killed about 20,000 Iranian soldiers immediately, according official reports. Of the 90,000 survivors some 5,000 seek medical treatment regularly and about 1,000 are still hospitalized with severe, chronic conditions”. Iraq also targeted civilians with chemical weapons, causing an unknown number of casualties within Iranian villages and hospitals.

Most estimates put the cost of the war at over $500 billion, the exact figure will be never be known for a number of reasons. Iraq was forced to borrow large sums of money to finance the war, this debt would encourage Saddam to eventually invade Kuwait. The conflict contributed to, if not directly causing, the Gulf War in 1991, which in turn caused the Gulf War in 2003. Since Kuwait had loaned a large amount of money to Iraq and then refused to forgive those loans Iraq was in deep economic disarray. As Kuwait refused to forgive those loans and also roadblocked Iraqi efforts to raise oil prices to generate revenue Iraq was in a more desperate situation.

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© 2016 Lloyd Busch

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