Friday, September 12, 2014

A Long Bloody War

Review of 'The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History' by Williamson Murray and William M. Woods.

by Paul Iddon

Saddam Hussein in the 1980's. / Public Domain.
In a post-war study to evaluate the eight-year war Iran fought with its neighbour Iraq the following was written in order to explain why the initial counter-offensive Iran mounted against Iraq in the summer of 1982, shortly after Iraq withdrew from Iranian territory, was a dismal failure,

“… the enemy [Iraq] was fighting in their own land and naturally they were familiar with the area … [T]he enemy, by retreating to its borders, in fact deepened and thickened its defensive line and reached a stronger defensive posture. In addition to this, they prepared themselves to fight against the invasion of infantry forces and to stop and control the invading waves.”

Another Iranian history written up around 1988 comes to similar conclusions and proclaims that,

On the third and fourth year of the war, based on the lessons they [the Iraqis] had learned in the battlefield, the Iraqis decided to employ new tactics and reorganized their forces to meet the new method of [our] operations. For us, confronting the 'new' enemy required new planning and different tactics, if we were to preclude a stalemate.”

Yet another more recent history (Steven R. Ward's 'Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces') sums up the failure of that disastrous period much more succinctly when it summed up Iran's strategy, or lack thereof, as being the equivalent of using “a hammer to destroy an anvil.”

All of the above is quoted in Williamson Murray and William M. Woods' new history of the Iran-Iraq War 'The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History' which was recently published by Cambridge University Press. The book is one of three which explore in-depth the perspective from the former Saddam Hussein regime during the major conflicts it was engaged in throughout its tyrannical reign. What makes it unique as a history of the period is the fact that it is based almost entirely around Baghdad's point-of-view as revealed by the documents produced by the Iraqi regime at that time which were secured after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. While it doesn't reveal much new about the Iranian perspective during the war it is nonetheless an important addition to our understanding of that war.

In relation to that aforementioned pivotal moment in the course of the war, that point in mid-1982 when Iran went on the offensive against Iraq after its liberation of Khuzestan, the authors sum up very well the failure of the Khomeini regime to adequately prepare an efficient and thorough counter-offensive – which of course enabled the Iraqi regime to solidify its hold on power as well as kill thousands of young ill-trained and ill-equipped Iranian youths who were sent directly into the killing fields which were Iraq's well prepared defenses,

'Tehran came increasingly to rely on low-technological military, which resulted in a military force largely consisting of limited mobility infantry armed with light weapons, rather than on a combined-arms manoeuvre force. In the end, relying on human-wave attacks was of little use in a stand-up fight against Iraqi forces equipped with superior technology and heavy weapons and with some ability to coordinate combined arms. Thus, the direction Iranian mobilization ended up in minimizing the potential that the remnants of the Shah's army might have represented the mobilization of a new, and effective military.'

On the whole the book can be slow to move along at times. This isn't to say that the book is tediously written, it likely derives from the account being true to the nature of that lengthy war as opposed to the books narrative style. The Iran Iraq War was after all the longest conventional war in the twentieth century yet one of the most scantly documented ones. Which is what makes histories which encompass hitherto unrevealed sources like this one does important to our understanding and comprehension of that conflict.

Iraqi documents in general reveal that the Saddam Hussein regime was just as conspiratorial and warped as his public pronouncements indicated. Saddam's misjudgements were often severe and since those who knew better feared him many of Iraq's most important decisions were made according to his many simplistic whims. One document refers to his discussion of the situation in Iran in February 1979. On that occasion he proclaimed Iran to be, “a big country of five nations, bordered by the Soviet Union. [It] has oil and has built a lot of big facilities, but big only because there is a difference between something big in size and the quality of its size. I equate this, my comrades, to a hunter who shoots the wing of a rock-dove with one bullet. It is not the bullet that kills the [bird] but it is [its] fall on the ground that kills it; that is its weight that was its affliction in this situation.”

Noting the clear similarity to his mentality later when he defied the international community in 1990 by annexing Kuwait the authors quote Saddam discussing the reason that Iraq decided to withdraw from Iran in June 1982,

We did not withdraw because of the enemy, but because we wanted to provide a psychological cover for our army. I swear to God, if the whole world wanted us to withdraw, we would never have withdrawn and would have stayed there and [fought] the enemy the same way, but because of some losses our army suffered we decided to withdraw.”

Ever mindful of the Israelis conspiring against them official Iraqi memorandums often forwarded very conspiratorial assessments. For instance in October 1981 when the Iranians launched an air raid on an oil facility in Kuwait the Iraqi regime officially speculated that this attack was carried out as a broader conspiracy in order to pressure the United States Congress to approve the then controversial sale of sophisticated AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. While it is still not known precisely why the Iranians launched that strike (unclear mysteries like this make one yearn for a day when historians can have unfettered access to Iran's documentary records from this period) they speculate within reason that it was likely to warn off a then important financier of the Iraqi aggressor.

The authors don't discuss much the US aiding and abetting of the Iraqi regime during this time. In a footnote they speculate that while the support of Saddam clearly went against many of America's stated principles it was more likely than not grounded primarily in a Cold War realpolitik oriented worldview. They also refer to a document from the Iraqis which demonstrate just how unspecific the nature of the intelligence the Iraqis were receiving from US sources were. One handwritten note on a document which warned the Iraqis of a coming Iranian offensive against their forces in Iran in 1981 outlines that important data missing from the report include elementary things like, “the nature of the new [upcoming] military attack, the size, the location whether [it will take place in the] north, south, or the middle” of the 800-mile front both countries were fighting on.

In many accounts of the conflict the war in the air has often been overlooked. This book however discusses at considerable length the abject failure of the Iraqis to enact a Six Day War opening salvo to take out the Iranian Air Force in September 1980. The authors also refer to the fact that the Iranian Air Force played a prominent role in defending Iran and various Iranian assets during the war. I mention this for the simple reason that claims made by General Azarbarzin that Iran's F-14 fleet was briefly flown out of the country to have their AIM-54 Phoenix missiles dismounted has led many to conclude that Iranian F-14s only served as mini-AWACS units throughout the war. The work of authors Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop however dispute that. They have referred to numerous cases of Iranian F-14s using their Phoenix missiles with resounding success against Iraqi planes throughout the course of the war. Their work is referenced in footnotes many times throughout this book when the aerial dimension of that war is discussed.

In 1981 when the Iranians attempted to disable the Iraqi Osirak reactor with their F-4 Phantom jets Iraq's air defense failed to react to their attack. Iraqi documents reveal that after the attack the Iraqis weren't even sure if the aircraft covering them were F-14s or F-16s – the latter of which would have likely signaled direct Israeli cooperation in that raid. The book recounts that one senior Iraqi military adviser suggested that the Iranians may possibly have misled Iraq's air defense by painting their planes with Iraqi air force markings. This led the minister of defense to remark, “Tell them … a MiG does not look like a Phantom.”

Interestingly during the wars “War of the Cities” phase the Iraqi Air Force attempted to target Iranian Scud launchers. The authors rightfully point out that such missions had no more success than the ones the American-led coalition would launch against Iraq's own Scud batteries during the course of the proceeding 1991 Persian Gulf War. Perversely enough the Iraqis inexplicably claimed around that time when the first Iranian missiles hit Baghdad that the explosions were in fact car bombs being set off by “Iranian terrorists”, a claim they would later retract due to the fact it brought into serious question Iraq's stability and internal security.

Another noteworthy memorandum referred to in the book is one which shows that when discussing where to fire their missiles the Iraqis took into account the populations of the areas they were targeting as well as their racial make-up. The memorandum they quote outlined how R-17 missiles should be fired at the following targets whose details were given as follows,

• Ahvaz (489,000) 90% Arab, 5% Persian, and 5% Lur.
• Khurram Abad (515,361) 90% Lur, 5% Kurd, 5% Persian
• Nahawind (119,255) 80% Persian, 10% Kurd, 10% Turk
• Masjid Sulayman (179,000) 85% Persian, 10% Arab, 5% Lur
• Khorramshahr (562,334) 90% Shi'a Kurd, 10% Persian
• Brujard (231,834) 90% Lur, 10% Turk

One quivers at the thought of what may have happened Iranian urban centers had Saddam Hussein acquired more sophisticated and destructive weapons to unleash upon Iran. Even early on in the war, 1981, he discussed casually the possibility of flooding Tehran by destroying the dams to its north. 

War aside the book gives us a good surmise of both Iraq and Iran's history in the run-up to the war. Even though the book is about the war purely from the Iraqi perspective the authors nevertheless demonstrate that they are quite knowledgeable when it comes to their understanding of Iran and its modern history. Writing about on the manner in which the Iranian heartland itself has been naturally shielded by mountainous terrain from invasions – in a manner not unlike how the vastness of Russia has seen to wanton conquerors perish and fail – over the years the authors quote the leader of an Indian Army division into Iran in 1941 named Lord Slim who noted amongst other things he experienced in Iran that,

The road to Kermanshah which we must follow rose sharply into the mouth of the pass and, climbing in curves and loops, vanished among cliffs and gorges to emerge, three thousand feet higher … It looks as if a handful of men could hold it against an army many times the size of mine.”

Regarding recent history many of the documents reveal a lot about the Ba'athists preoccupation with eventually confronting Israel. However what the book is also worth reading for is the history it gives of the fallout between the Hussein regime and the Assad regime in Syria. In January 1981 Saddam Hussein discussed the prospect of Iraq and Syria forming a singular unified Baathist polity not unlike the failed Nasser-era "United Arab Republic" between Egypt and Syria. Saddam contended that the Arab nations collectively constituted a proverbial tent with Iraq representing the only "central post" and Saddam by extension the sole leader of the Arab nation as a whole. As he said himself late in 1979 as far as he was concerned with Syria's Hafez al-Assad "it is either collision or merger. There is no middle ground in this matter."

The Baath rivalry between the two Arab states is referenced a few times throughout in the book. On one noteworthy occasion Saddam's general disdain for the lack of action of other Arab countries saw the Iraqi dictator furiously respond to Syrian claims that they were merely waiting for Iraq to join them so they could go on and destroy the State of Israel together. Declaring the Assad regime to be little more than “liars, crooks and cowards and worriers” Saddam reiterated an old Iraqi proverb which says the Iraqis would “show up so fast that our heads would arrive before our feet” in response to any call to confront the Israelis.

Late in the war Hussein also asserted that,

As far as the war, we do not need Hafez al-Assad … to fight with us. He cannot fight and he does not want to fight, and even if he is willing to fight, he is incapable of fighting, because this war only Iraqis will handle it. We do not need him for the war … I hope this day will never come, wherein I have to shake al-Assad's dirty hand, with the blood of Iraqis on it.”

The book briefly notes that King Hussein of Jordan attempted to reconcile the Baghdad and Damascus regimes in 1986 and even, with Soviet assistance, got Assad and Saddam to meeting in western Iraq in April the following year. However it was clear that heavy investment by Iran into Syria's economy ensured that alliance remained bought. As it essentially does to the present day.

What is more interesting however is what Saddam was more cautious about around that time. And that was the winds of change that were evident even then. The rise of a particular brand of Islamist politics saw Saddam take a more cooler and level-headed, by his standards, approach. Documents demonstrate that he saw an opportunity to utilize such fervor to his advantage since such a current was “not only directed against the Ba'ath … it is directed towards the prevalent circumstances in the Arab world, which no one is satisfied with.”

In short The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History is a good addition to other books already available on the subject. However in and of itself it is not a thorough account of the entire war and wouldn't be an appropriate book on its own if one is seeking to garner a broad overview of the wars events and its numerous nuances and complexities – especially whereby ordinary people on both sides and their experiences are concerned. It is nevertheless a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the war in detail as it gives us a very valuable and unique insight into the inner-workings and machinations of one of the regimes engaged in that very bloody and very costly and lengthy war.


Mark Pyruz said...

Readers might wish to know this title is presently available in the UK (such as UK-based

It will be available here in the United States this October 31 at sellers such as Amazon.

Brig. Gen. Basrawi (IQAF.ret) said...

Thanks for sharing. Interesting post by the author. It is good that more research is being conducted regarding this war, especially now that the researchers are keeping their focus on extracting the Iraqi point of view. Unfortunately about the time when the war was nearing its end, certain political entities in Iran began changing the historical events that were occuring during the final stages of the war, a shrewd move intended for their own domestic audience.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt in mind that the initiator of the war was Saddam Hussein and that he tried to attack and defeat the "Persians" as per his ideological understanding of the world. Certainly the Shia-Sunni and the political Islam represented by the new Iranian regime played a significant role for him to take the decision and start the war, but as time went on, his main objective was immediately after the start of the war once again based on pan-Arabism with strong anti-Iranian flavor.
Regarding the continuation of war after Iranian lands were recaptured, there are many different stories told but there are mainly biased. It was not only the decision of the clergic regime to continue the war due to domestic political reasons. In 1982 several Iranian intelligence agencies made an assessment of the option of stopping the war and starting a cease fire with Saddam, but all assessments pointed to the fact that Saddam would rearm and attack Iran again, this time far more mighty and far more destructive. These included the assessment of Iran's back then Armed forces intelligence, IRGC intelligence unit and the new national intelligence organization (many elements from Shah's SAVAK). All intelligence reports pointed out that:
i) Due to Iran's isolation Iran will not be able to easily rebuild its armed forces with reserve parts and modern new equipments. However Iraq will have the upperhand to easily rearm with modern weapons from both the West but also the East.
ii) Iraq's economy was still in good shape despite the 2 years of war. It's foreign reserve was consumed to certain degree but it had no debts and its oil industry mainly intact. It would allow it to have the necessary credit for all new arms purchases.
iii) Its Arab financiers were still ready to give him big loans for repairing his country, but that money would mainly end up for purchasing arms.
iv) Saddam would put all his money on making sure its nuclear reactor was rebuilt and that would be a disaster for Iran.
v) Saddam's crushed navy would be rebuilt and this time it knew what to empahsize on in order to be able to counter Iran.
vi) Saddam's smashed air force was already spending huge money to rebuild and it would be given enough time to put together all the pieces.
vii) Army streategies will be reviewed and Iraq would have enough time to make an analysis of misstakes and conduct lessons learned from the 2 years of war with Iran. Its army offices had now enough war experience to strategise and plan war actions. Its soldiers were also experienced and the same generation of officers and soldiers would be called in for service in case of a potential near future war again.
viii) Iran's population on the contraty would not back up the regime in case of a near future war again and would most probably turn against the central government for its lack of being powerful enough to stop potential invaders from waging war against Iran. The political instability inside Iran would also not be in favor of Iranian regime in case of a potential future war. Furthermore the economy would not be in the right shape due to sanctions and isolation.
So after the assessments were studied and discussed for several months the conclusion was to not let the "wounded wolf" lick its wounds and prepare a future attack. At that time that was the only option Iran had and it was a choice between many bad options and this was the least bad option.

Brig. General. Basrawi (IQAF.ret) said...

And some of the points you bring up originate from the Iranian regime's argumentation for continuing the war, going on the offensive to conquer Karbala. Iran's efforts to occupy Iraqi soil had infact the opposite desired effect for the Iranian regime. Several of these points did indeed come to fruition. Such as the rise of the Iraqi air force from 1982 and onwards, becoming the 4th largest airforce by 1990. The Iraqi army expansion from mid 1982 and onwards resulting in the 4th largest conventional ground force in the world by 1990. The Iraqi navy came out of the war bigger than in 1980. Both countries were able to source weapons past 1982, Iraq more so than Iran, because it was defending itself and many international actors did not want the radical islamic regime in Tehran to attain victory. Neither did they want to see the Baathist regime in Baghdad to succeed in anything else but surviving the onslaught and drive off the Iranians. Unfortunately the clerical theocracy was unable to realize that a decisive victory and regime change in Iraq was something of an impossibility in light of the support that Iraq was getting. And after 6 years of battering themselves against Iraqi defenses, it all spiraled into the near total destruction of the Iranian military machine. Later Saddam ordered the invasion of Kuwait, an unwarranted decision that created repercussions for Iraq that lasted through ought the 90s and the final punishment which was the 2003 invasion by US and UK. In my opinion, Iraq could have managed its economical woes if enough time was permitted, without having to resort to another land grab. Saddam's wish to annex Kuwait sealed Iraq's fate.

Anonymous said...

50 plus countries were actively helping Iraq with whatever material or finances he needed in order to fight Iran. On the Iranian side except North Korea, Syria and Libya Iran had no clear friends. Sure Iran could buy weapons from the black market paying several times the real prices and under difficult circumstances but Iran didn't enjoy Iraq's status. As such the Iraqi position was far stronger.
The reason Iran quit fighting in 1988 was not due to its military machine being crushed, it was mainly due to open and direct conflict with the US in the Persian Gulf where US earlier on had downed Iranian civilian jet liner and also confronted and destroyed part of Iranian navy and oil installations. At that time Iran realized that the "old cold war" seemed to be almost over because of a weak Soviet response to US direct attack on Iranian interests and that it was time to think realistically and the most realistic option was to accept the cease fire.
Regarding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Iran's intelligence agencies had reported suspicious Iraqi activities and planning which pointed to a new military initiative with offensive exposure already in late April 1990. Iran got seriously worried as it thought Saddam might have new plans against Iran again and as such Iran secretly put part of the military command in yellow alert. Iran had also increased its intelligence activities on Iraq both inside but also outside Iraq in order to be one step ahead of any surprises planned by Saddam. Iran's main concern was Iraqi missile, nuclear and air force rearming and in that matter Iran collaborated with Pakistan's ISI to exchange intelligence with Western countries including Israel. For example Iran was extremely satisfied to see Richard Bull killed by Israeli agents in late March 1990 as his super gun but also missile extension program were big threats to both Israel but also Iran.

Anonymous said...

Part 2
The Iranian fear even grew more when Saddam started to exchange a series of letters with president Hashemi Rafsanjani. At that time many people thought this was a deceptive move by Saddam to get Iran lowering its guard. Rafsanjani had long regular meetings with top commanders in order to find ways to quickly improve the poor status of the Iranian military machine. Many important decisions were made during this period such as purchase of Chinese F-7 for close air support and increasing the number of Chinese Silkworm missiles for sea targets.
It was only in the beginning of July that Iranian intelligence could confirm the military activities in Iraq were not aimed on Iran but would most probably be aimed at Kuwait with a potential extension to Saudi Arabia. Rafsanjani had in early 1990 sent a secret message to Saudis for improving the relations which Iran found to be of crucial importance in order to better isolate Saddam. As such some secret meetings were held between lower rank representatives of two countries from early 1990. In July 1990 when Iranian intelligence confirmed potential Iraqi intentions, Iran informed Saudi Arabia about the threat. The Saudis at that time checked with the Americans who later on in July could confirm Iraq had no expansive intentions. As such the Saudis believed the Iranians were just trying to destabilize the already poor relation between Saddam and Saudi Arabia and didn't take the Iranian warning seriously. In late July Iranian intelligence elements in southern Iraq could confirm visual contact with massive troop movements towards South. Iranians at that time were both confused by Saddam's move and intention as they had no details and could thereby not calculate potential short-term consequences for Iran. On the early hours of July 30th Iran finally made the decision to send two Phantom F-4E from Bushehr Airbase for reconnaissance flights towards northern part of the Persian Gulf on the edge of Iran-Iraq-Kuwait border areas. However the evidence from the flights could not confirm any extra activity in the area which actually confused the Iranians even more. Finally the invasion came on August 2nd and we all know what happened thereafter. So one can conclude the Iraqis this time had really learned how to conceal their intentions until the very last moment of the attack and thereby fully surprise the enemy.

Anonymous said...

Brig. General. Basrawi (IQAF.ret)September 13, 2014 at 1:09 PM
You`re trying to spin the war as some sort of iraqi success against iranian "aggression" but the truth of the matter was that saddam failed in every single one of his war aims,true he just managed to hold onto power but only at the cost of bankrupting his country and bleeding it white and then in desperation he turned on kuwait,his military and airforce may have been the forth largest but frankly their performance against iran was pretty lackluster at best and against the coalition they werent even a speed bump ,when one looks at what iraq and iraqis had to suffer during the 80s-2000s as a result of saddams stupidity the best thing the best thing that couldve happened would have been saddams defeat by iran and the consequential removal of him and the baath dictatorship,it certainly would have avoided the destruction and carnage that befell iraq after 91,lastly I wouldnt call saddams aggression against kuwait "unwarranted" I`d call it insanely stupid but then he was pretty stupid to attack iran in the first place