Photo from Iran's operation "Karbala 5".
On the 9th of January, 1987, Iran launched the first of three offensives, in order to break Iraqi defenses. The first operation - Karbala-5 - was aimed at Basra itself.
Iraqi engineers had constructed an elaborate defensive line. A main feature of this line was an artificial lake - called "Fish Lake" by the Iranians, and "Al-asmak" by the Iraqis. Iraq's defensive line ran along its Eastern shore, along the Sha'at ol Arab, and behind a series of canals that would extend north and east of Basra. In some areas, the water was actually electrified. Extensive minefields, tripwires attached to explosive devices, zigzagging trenches, and obstacles such as barbed wire, completed the defensive system.
Behind these defenses, a force including twelve brigades of Iraq's elite Republican Guard, waited for the Iranian offensive.
Against these defenses, Iran had prepared a large assault force. The Basij - civilian volunteers with around 40 days of military training - would constitute a major part of the assault force. Iran had amassed its latest levy of volunteers - the "Muhammad Corps". Said to be a hundred thousand strong, these volunteers had arrived by bus from all all parts of Iran.
In an attempt to prevent Iraq from rapidly transferring units to its defense lines at Basra, Operations Karbala-6, at Qasr Shirin and Karbala-7 in Kurdistan, were to follow.
The battle for Basra was about to begin.
Captured Iraqi positions. In the forground, a dead Iraqi soldier.
Boots left by fleeing Iraqi Soldiers
An Eyewitness Account from operation "Karbala 6"
Some ten thousand of the Basij from the "Sepah Muhammad" were to form the spearhead of one of these attacks. Though considered a diversionary attack, Karbala 6 in fact involved two of the most powerful divisions in the Iranian military.
One former soldier of the Iranian Army's 77th mechanized division recalls:
"The operation was to begin at___ am. Civilian volunteers had taken up positions with the Army's 40th 'Sarab' infantry regiment. The soldiers and volunteers were waiting for the word for the attack to begin."
"Strict silence was supposed to be observed. But the Basiji's wantonly fired off so many rounds that the enemy discovered that something was going to happen. We were forced to start before schedule, and the ten thousand advanced on Iraqi positions."
"The Iraqi's had abandoned their positions. As the Basij advanced, the Iraqis counter attacked with armor, and caught the 10,000 in a pincer movement."
"The Basij were now surrounded. Most of them were armed with only a Kalashnikov and two spare magazines. Then, the Army's 77th 'Khorasan" mechanized division, and the Sepah's (Islamic Revolutionary Guards) 31st 'Ashoora' division advanced to attack the right and left flanks of the Iraqi counter attack."
"The 77th was armed with helicopter gun ships, tanks, 106mm, 130mm and 230mm artillery. The 31st was armed with captured Iraqi tanks. Together, the 77th and the 31st inflicted heavy loss on the Iraqi's, and broke through the encirclement. But by that time, I was sorry to see that the people had already been killed."
Iraq Responds With Chemical Weapons
As Iranians established their hold on captured teritory, earth movers were hastily brought up to construct sand berms. Units of the Iranian Army began to arrive.
Iraqi Airforce attacked Iranian supply routes with chemical weapons, in order to interdict the Iranian reinforcement effort.
As it had done so often in the past, Iraq concentrated its airforce and artillery against Iran's salient, and resorted to the use of chemical weapons. Massed artillery and airial bombardment was bad enough. But seeking cover from poisonous gas was worse than useless: the gas seeped accross the earth, and filled the trenches.
Iranian troops had been equiped with automatic atropine syringes, and gas masks. These were only useful if employed immediately upon exposure.
Gas seeped into the trenches, and wafted over berms. But with shrapnel from conventional artillery shells, getting out of a foxhole or trench could mean death.
This, combined with Iraq's use of timer-bearing mortar shells - which exploded in the air, and made seeking cover useless - made it very difficult for Iran to continue the offensive.
Meanwhile, chemical weapons dropped on transportation routes prevented Iran from reinforcing the salient as a springboard for attacking Basrah itself.
While the Basij and Revolutionary Guards faced this predicament, Iraq counter attacked.
At the high point of Karbala-5, Iranian forces came within 12 km of Basra, and nearly surrounded it. Iranian forces captured the town of Duayji, and penetrated the southeastern side of Fish lake.
By the 26th of February, the Iranian offensive was over. According to one story, the Iraqi's marked the occasion by putting up a sign reading:"At this spot, 65,000 were killed".
The Iranian High Command issued a statement, claiming capture of 155 square kilometers of enemy-occupied territory; the destruction of 81 Iraqi brigades and battalion; the destruction of 700 tanks and 1,500 other vehicles; the downing of 80 iraqi warplanes; the destruction of 250 anti- aircraft guns and 400 pieces of military hardware; the capture of 220 tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
The Iran Iraq War
The war began september 22, 1980, when Iraqi mechanized divisions crossed Iran's border. The main thrust of the invasion was focused on the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan. Small Iranian border units were quickly overwhelmed by Iraqi armor. Iraq's forces then advanced on Iran's border cities, laying siege to Khoramshahr.
Another arm of Iraq's invasion was aimed at Abadan. Much of the population fled, as Abadan's Modern suburbs came under attack from ground and air. Iran's oil refinery at Abadan - the largest in the middle east - was set ablaze by Iraqi fire.
Much of the Iranian Army was deployed along Iran's border with the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan. Khuzistan was consequently not well-defended.
Iran's regular Army was in a state of confusion, both as a result of the loss of its leadership after the revolution, and as a result of the general turmoil under the new revolutionary government. In addition, several failed coup attempts cast suspicion on the Army, convincing the government to rely on civilian volunteers, organized into two irregular forces: The Sepah-eh Pasdaran-eh Enqelab-eh Eslami (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps), and its protege, the Basij.
The Basij was composed of civilian volunteers. In the beginning, most of its members had no military experience.
Armed resistance from civilians was often the only form of resistance encountered by the advancing Iraqi army.
Iran's army did play a role in the war, especially in the early phase. However, as the war continued, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards would assume a greater role, and evolve into a full-fledged conventional military force. The Army would increasingly be used to defend ground already gained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Basij.
Iraq's armed forces also evolved a parallel organization to its regular Army: the "Jeish olSha'bi".
The Western Media was hostile to Iran from the beginning, and had little interest in being fair or objective. Despite having started the war, Saddam Hussein recieved no international condemnation. Particularly striking was the silence after the first use of chemical weapons since the first World War.
Meanwhile there was open discussion about Iran's use of "human waves", and teenage volunteers. The Western press was rife with stories about "plastic keys" and young children being sent over minefields. The apparent effect of such reporting was to internationally discredit the genuine public support for the war effort in Iran.
The West was against Iran from the start.