The nearly four-month-old war between Iraq and Iran is showing little sign of coming to an end. Despite the reportedly thwarted Iranian counteroffensive earlier this month, there have been few dramatic changes in front-line positions since the early days of the conflict.
Both sides appear to be well entrenched, with Iraqis still holding considerable portions of Iranian territory, sometimes penetrating as deeply as 45 miles inside the northern and central sectors.
In the south, they control only portions of flat desert, now a sodden quagmire with winter rains, straddling the Khersan River as well as part of the east bank along the strategic Shatt al Arab waterway.
Although the Iraqis claim to occupy Khorramshahr fully, except for a few pockets of resistance, heavy fighting still continues around the city of Abadan.
Furthermore, Iraqi troops have yet to reach Dezful or Ahvaz. Iraqi officers maintain that this is not through any lack of ability to press ahead, but because they have been ordered to hold their position.
As if to prove this point, Iraqi officers maintain that this is not through any lack of ability to press ahead, but because they have been ordered to hold their position.
As if to prove this point, Iraqi forces entered the town of Dehloran, 70 miles northwest of Dezful, toward the end of last week. Government television, which broadcasts a daily dose of propaganda film clips from the fronts intermixed with fervent patriotic songs, showed Iraqi tanks and troops entering the town with no visible indications of Iranian opposition.
According to the announcer, the Iranians had fled to the hills during the onslaught. Iraqi soldiers were seen storming the governor's deserted headquarters through ground-floor windows and reemerging shortly afterward, triumphantly tearing posters of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to pieces. Before withdrawing they were shown planting the Iraqi flag on the roof and then blowing up strategic buildings, including those at the airport, to prevent them from falling back into Iranian hands.
The Iraqi military command claims it killed 30 Iranians and destroyed more than a dozen tanks and vehicles during the operation. They put their losses at 12 dead with one armored personnel carrier, six trucks, and two guns destroyed.
Despite an overabundance of rumor and questionable government communiques on the front situation, both diplomats and foreign observers, such as Western engineers working on civilian projects in the country, feel the Iraqis have the upper hand.
There are reports that the Iraqis crushed, not without severe casualties of their own, a three-pronged attack by Iranian armored brigades south of Susangerd along the Kharkeh River in what is believed to have been the biggest tank battle since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. While the Iraqis claimed to have captured 300 Iranian tanks, the Iranians, on the other hand, say they killed 200 Iraqi soldiers, destroyed 45 tanks, and took more than 2,000 men prisoner.
Although Western journalists were allowed to visit the scene of the battle only on Jan. 13 (five days after the assault), it was quite evident from the wreckage that a major battle had taken place.
Reporters counted roughly 150 destroyed or deserted Iranian tanks, and also distinguished at least 40 Iraqi tanks among the charred remains.
In contrast tosome Iraqi military information officers who were far to the rear of the fighting and who talk of Iran's "foolish move" in the face of Baghdad's "victory," officers who had actually participated in the confrontation spoke more soberly and with a certain degree of respect of the Iranian attack. They admitted it very nearly took them by surprise.
Unconfirmed government reports also referred to abortive Iranian forward thrusts into several Iraqi-occupied areas around the towns of Gilan-e Gharb, Somar, and Saif Sa'd, 80 miles northeast of Baghdad. The Iraqis claimed to have repulsed all the attacks, inflicting heavy losses on the Iranians.
Foreign observers have been impressed by Iraq's elaborate defense precautions behind the lines. With bulldozers almost more common than tanks, special military roads, some of them rapidly asphalted, have been constructed to improve communications with the front. Tanks and trucks have been dug in, and morale among the troops appears high.
However, as some roads are still only dirt tracts, many vehicles have become bogged down crossing through streams and muddy fields. Even with a spectacular breakthrough, either side would find it exceedingly difficult to make much forward progress until the rains end in February.
Western diplomats here believe neither side has the political and military c apabilities to bring about battlefield solution.