Gulf war: a delicate balance both sides seek to shatter

"The two sides appear to be in balance," said one Iranian expert, referring to the war between Iran and Iraq. He meant that unless one side or the other is able to boost its forces to a considerable extent, there seems little likelihood of significant movement of the two armies on the ground in either direction.

This assessment of the Gulf war situation was made just as the Iraqis were claiming to have completed their encirclement of Abadan while hand-to-hand fighting went on in nearby Khorramshahr.

Iraqi leaders now say their forces aim to capture Iran's oil-producing areas and keep them until Iran is willing to negotiate. This suggests that the oil province of Khuzestan, not just the two coastal cities, is an Iraqi objective.

Other Iraqi demands are for full sovereignty over the Shatt al Arab waterway at the head of the Gulf, redefining of the Iran-Iraq border, and return of three islands in the Gulf to Iraq.

The Iraqis, who reportedly have been using commando units to meet the challenge of largely untrained but tenacious Islamic fighters in Abadan and Khorramshahr, have reduced large areas to rubble. Despite attacks on them with mortar and heavy weapons, Iranian defenders are said to have gone up to the rooftops in Khorramshahr to get a better view of the attacking Iraqis.

The extent of the carnage is likely to become better known only after the war , but it can be guessed at by the decision to change the name of Khorramshahr [ Persian for pleasant city] to Khuninshahr [blood city]. An Army major, speaking to a crowd after seeing action in Khorramshahr, said that before the onslaught came, "The people did not have guns. They asked for guns. They were told: 'The enemy has guns. Go and get them.' That is what they are doing."

The intensification of fighting in the Abadan and Khorramshahr sector is believed by Iran to have been caused by two factors:

1. The Iraqis have not been able to make any further progress toward capturing Ahvaz and Dezful farther to the north, and need some sort of victory to boost the morale of their own men.

2. They will need to move faster to avoid being bogged down by the approaching winter.

It was believed earlier they would not try to take Abadan and Khorramshahr until they had cut off Ahvaz and Dezful from the rest of Iran, because of the heavy losses they would suffer in battles for the two southern cities.

But in Dezful they reportedly have been forced to retreat, and in Ahvaz they have failed so far to encircle the city, though their bombardment reportedly is continuing.

Iran's President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr meanwhile has stationed himself in Khuzestan Province and vowed not to move from there until the Iraqis have been pushed back. However, the exact location of the President, who is also supreme commander of the armed forces, is being kept secret.

When Islamic Conference Secretary-General Habib Chatti wished to see Mr. Bani-Sadr soon after his arival in Tehran Oct. 20, he had to fly to Khuzestan, close to where the fighting is going on.It is not yet clear whether the entire joint military staff [the Iranian equivalent of general headquarters] has been removed to Khuzestan, but in television newsreels the President recently was shown at the front with the joint chief of staff and other top officers at his side.

He apparently achieved two objectives by his decision to move to Khuzestan and stay there:

1. His presence among the troops will have the effect of boosting their morale.

2. He can take on-the-spot decisions without having to refer them to the recently established Supreme Defense Council based in Tehran.

Ayatollah Khomeini had earlier decreed that all decisions regarding the war had to be taken by the council, which includes Ayatollah Khomeini and Majlis (parliament) Speaker Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, two prominent mullahs and rivals of Mr. Bani-Sadr in the internal power struggle that has been going on since before the war started.

Whether by order of Mr. Bani-Sadr or the council, more Iranian tanks and artillery appear to be coming gradually into action on the southern front. It is not clear whether they were kept in reserve earlier because a major counteroffensive was planned, or hidden for fear of Iraqi air attacks. It is significant, however, that the heavy armor and artillery should be emerging as the Iraqi air offense is beginning to wane.

The Iranians nevertheless are not quite free yet in the air war. The Iraqis are believed to have Soviet-made SAMs (surface to air missiles), which could be used effectively against Iran's American-made Phantom jet fighter planes. The Iranians claim to have destroyed at least one SAM site, but did not indicate precisely where it was.

For some inexplicable reason, Iran's Cobra helicopter gunships continue to used mainly in the Ilam area (where the terrain is best suited for their use). However, no dramatic progress by the Iranians has been reported there, despite repeated claims that Iraqi positions have been destroyed.

Kayhan newspaper reported Oct. 21 that the Iranians have begun a move to retake Qasr-e Shirin in the northern sector of the front. However, the counterattack is nowhere on the scale needed to make a big push toward Baghdad. The newspaper said a guerrilla attack is being launched on the Iraqis holding Qasr-e Shirin.

Ayatollah Khomeini meanwhile has ordered the setting up of 22-man defense groups in every neighborhood in Iran. This is something short of a general mobilization of all able-bodied men. Along the front area, volunteers from the border tribes have been trained hurriedly for battle against the Iraqis.

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