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Iraq's 1980s war with Iran

In a park near the Tigris River, twin monumental sculptures each with two swords crossing high overhead, gripped in fists said to be modeled on Saddam Hussein's hands commemorate the long, bitter conflict that the Iraqi leader proclaimed the Qadissiya War.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2003 13:45 IST
GG LaBelle (Associated Press)
GG LaBelle (Associated Press)

In a park near the Tigris River, twin monumental sculptureseach with two swords crossing high overhead, gripped in fists said to be modeled on Saddam Hussein's handscommemorate the long, bitter conflict that the Iraqi leader proclaimed the Qadissiya War.

Saddam, who often identifies his deeds with the epic past, took the name from a famous 7th century victory of Arab Muslims over a Persian army. But Saddam's Qadissiyathe 1980-88 war against Iran, the Persia of todayhad no such decisive outcome.

It was bloody and ruinous, undermining Iraq's once vibrant economy and setting the country on a path of conflict with former friends, both in the region and in faraway Washington. Begun with an Iraqi thrust into Iran in September 1980, the war dragged on for eight years before sputtering out in stalemate. Popular support, grounded in ancient enmity, withered as tens of thousands of coffins arrived from the battlefields. Oil earnings that had built a modern Iraq were shunted into armaments.

After the conflict ended, huge war debts to then-allies like Kuwait helped set the stage for Iraq's invasion of its smaller neighbourand for the economic devastation suffered by the Iraqi people to this day.

Ali Abdel Amir, a reserve officer in the war, said the conflict aggravated the split between Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and the Sunni Muslims who dominate politics.

Saddam tried to silence anger at the mounting death toll by giving free cars and houses to families who lost fathers, sons and brothers. But such gestures did little to quell anti-war feeling. "How can a man be silent before this tragedy?" asked Abdel Amir, who now lives in Jordan and is editor of Al-Massala magazine published by Iraqi writers in exile.

More than 1 million people died on both sides of the conflict. In Baghdad, bitterness grew as more and more black banners were draped across house fronts to mourn the war dead. One devastating banner recorded a family's loss of "the eighth and last son" to the conflict.

At the war's start, some Iraqi officials promised victory in a month. Iran was thought to be in chaos just a year after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution, and the purges to rid the army of the last vestiges of the Shah of Iran's rule. Iraq, by contrast, was flush with oil money. It had built the best universities and hospitals in the Arab world. Its arts were thriving.

Older parts of Baghdad had been torn down and replaced by elevated highways and modern apartment buildings with the occasional Moorish touch all put up by Japanese, South Korean and European contractors reaping profits from the 1970s oil boom. The ostensible causes of the war were border disputes that went back centuries, especially where to draw the border in the Shatt al-Arab, the estuary that divides the countries in the south and is Iraq's only outlet to the sea.

Saddam also was fighting Iran's pledge to spread Islamic revolution across the world. His Baath Party prided itself on its secularism. He won backing from nervous monarchies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and from the United States, whose diplomats had been held hostage by Iranian radicals for 444 days inside the US Embassy in Tehran.

Saddam envisioned a greater role for himself in the Arab world, too, after Egypt, the traditional regional power, had been isolated for its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

To ensure popular backing for the war, Iraq's government used its oil earnings to flood the country with European luxury goods unknown to most Iraqis. One woman recalls her first taste of Camembert cheese came at the start of the Iran-Iraq war.

Saddam underestimated the Iranian resistance, typified by young zealots pouring across mine fields to attack Iraqi troops who had occupied their land. There would be no quick victory. "After three or four months, even the leaders of troops in the field realized the war may take longer," said Abdel Amir, the reserve officer.

Before long, the homefront was suffering, too, since even oil-rich Iraq could not afford both guns and butter. Funds for development and imported Western goods were slashed. Civil service jobs were cut.

Abdel Amir recalled desertions skyrocketing. "A few soldiers, then hundreds, then even thousands ran away from the battlefront," he said. Many were Shiites from the south who felt they had little stake in fighting for Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime. In 1984, Iranian forces briefly advanced across the highway from Baghdad to Basra in southern Iraq, and the city, once a playground for Kuwaitis escaping their strict religious state, was blacked out at night, its main buildings protected by sandbags.

At a cavernous, back-alley Basra nightclub, a young Shiite drafted into the army was being given a last fling by friends. The reed-thin young man, perhaps 18 or 19, was in tears as a chubby Egyptian bar girl translated his lament: "He doesn't want to die." The fears were not limited to the Shiites in the south. In Baghdad, a middle-aged professional explained in a whispered conversation how Saddam's regime was forcing men to go to the front as part of a popular militia.

"If I am an old man, even then they can tell me I have to go into the People's Army. I have to sign a paper saying it is of my own free will. I cannot explain that I am old or I have the only income for my family. I must sign; if I do not, then my family is finished."

With progress in the war faltering, Washington provided Iraq with intelligence and poured billions of dollars into arms and economic aid.

"Iraqis realized they needed a big and strong friend and they found that in the United States," said Abdel Amir. For eight years, fierce campaigns were interspersed with stalemate. Missiles rained on Iraqi and Iranian cities. Iran attacked ships in the Persian Gulf, and the United States was drawn deeper into the conflict, sending Navy warships to protect Kuwaiti tankers temporarily outfitted with American flags. On July 20, 1987, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 598 demanding a cease-fire.

Iraq was agreeable, but Iran refused. The demand of Ayatollah Khomeini for ending the war sounds familiar in 2003 _ he wanted the ouster and trial of Saddam Hussein. The battles raged on. Iraq's forces, which had used mustard gas on Iranian soldiers, used it on minority Kurds in Iraq who rebelled in the north in March 1988. Starting that April, Iraq began recapturing lands Iran had seized after driving out Iraqi invaders from its own territory.

Iran was wearing down. Convinced by his generals that Iran could not win, Khomeini accepted resolution 598 nearly a year after it was adopted.

The war officially ended under the UN cease-fire on Aug. 20, 1988. Neither side gained land. The only result was death and destruction.

In Iraq, weary soldiers returned from the front to find few jobs available. Saddam desperately needed money to pump up the economy and demanded that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia forgive debts incurred during the war with Iran.

When the answer was no, Saddam accused Kuwait of stealing Iraq's oil through wells pumped under the two countries' border. Summoning the past again _ saying Kuwait was historically an Iraqi provincehe invaded the country on Aug. 2, 1990.

That brought on the Gulf War in which the United States led an international coalition to drive its former ally from Kuwait. And it brought UN sanctions limiting Iraq's oil income. The sanctions, the Security Council ruled, could not be ended until Iraq gave up its weapons of mass destruction.

Today, the United States is threatening a new war on Iraq, accusing Saddam of continuing to hide chemical and biological weapons. A dozen years after the Kuwaiti invasion, Iraq's 22 million people still are living under UN economic sanctions.

First Published: Jan 22, 2003 13:45 IST