The latest Iranian offensive against Iraq has fueled speculation that it may be the opening move in the much bigger ground offensive long-promised by leaders in Tehran. It has also triggered a resumption of the ``war of the cities,'' involving long-range strikes on towns and cities far from the battlefront in both countries, for the first time in a year and a half.
As Iraqi ground troops battled to dislodge Iranian forces from the positions they had seized southeast of Basra, this past weekend witnessed an ugly cycle of escalating attacks on civilian areas in both countries, with each claiming it was carrying out reprisals for strikes on its own population centers.
The result is that the one slim achievement of mediators in the more than six-year-old conflict - the June 1985 moratorium which halted the war of the cities - has now gone by the board. There have been several hundred civilian casualties since Iran launched its attack, code-named ``Karbala-5'' Thursday night.
Intense as the renewed attacks on civilian areas may be, military analysts do not see them as having much bearing on the overall course of the war. Keen interest is focused on the ground battles in the sector east of Basra. Observers believe the outcome may have important implications.
Some sources with access to satellite intelligence assessments believe the Karbala-5 attack may be a prelude to the major offensive for which Iran is reported to have massed up to 650,000 fighters along the border.
``We think this is the beginning of the big one,'' said one analyst. The belief is that the Iranians may be trying to force Iraq to commit its reserves to the battle at the southern end of the front, and that they might then launch a major push in the central sector several hundred miles to the north.
In the absence of independent battlefront reports, it is always hard to gauge the scale of hostilities in the Persian Gulf conflict. But most of the indications are that the Karbala-5 attack is considerably bigger than the previous Iranian onslaught launched Dec. 24 across the Shatt al Arab waterway southeast of Basra.
Iranian leaders portrayed that attack as a punitive, hit-and-run incursion, and said their forces returned to base after destroying Iraqi positions and inflicting high casualties. Iraq, however, claimed the outcome as a major victory.
Iraq's celebrations caused visible irritation in Tehran. Addressing a prayer meeting last Friday, President Ali Khamenei said one aim of the latest offensive was to expose the ``false propaganda'' of the Iraqi victory claims in the December fighting.
``It was essential for the reactionaries of the region to know that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein's propaganda trumpetings on the Karbala-4 [December] operation were just lies,'' he said. ``Our fighters wanted to prove that Saddam has lied to the Iraqi people and his armed forces....''
Mr. Khamenei's remarks were seen as implying that this time, Iranian forces do not intend to relinquish the Iraqi positions they captured in their initial thrust last Thursday night.
Further evidence of this intention came yesterday, when Iran announced its troops had begun the ``second phase'' of the operation, advancing and seizing more Iraqi positions. Military statements from Iraq said its forces had crushed all Iranian attempts to expand the ``foothold'' which Baghdad conceded the Iranians still held late Sunday. Both sides claimed to have inflicted massive casualties.
Because Iran seems determined to hang on the ground it has gained, and Iraq is clearly committed to dislodging the Iranian forces, analysts say the outcome of the battle will be an important indicator - especially given the significance attached by Iraq to its defenses in the area east of Basra.
Even if not directly connected with the massive offensive Iranian leaders have been threatening for months, the outcome of the latest battles may thus have important implications for any bigger operation the Iranians may have in mind.
Recent months have seen the two sides come perilously close to reviving the cities war. On six occasions since August, Iran fired long-range missiles at the Iraqi capital Baghdad, and many times subjected the port city of Basra, within range of the battlefront, to heavy artillery bombardments.
Iran said it carried out those attacks in reprisal for heavy civilian casualties suffered during the intensive campaign of bombing strikes unleashed by Iraq since July on economic and industrial targets deep inside Iran.
The Iraqis kept up that bombing campaign, but did not retaliate deliberately against purely residential areas. Now that one final restraint has been abandoned, and the war of the cities is under way with a vengeance.
Even before the Iranians launched their Karbala-5 offensive in the border wetlands near Basra shortly after midnight last Thursday, the Iraqis had warned that any further Iranian artillery bombardment of Basra would provoke dire consequences.
On Friday, Iran announced that 137 civilians were killed and many others wounded when Iraqi jets bombed the town of Susangerd, about 15 miles from the border in southwest Iran. The subsequent Iranian shelling of Basra prompted a wave of long-range Iraqi missile strikes and bombing raids on the towns of Dezful, Nahavand, Borujerd, Ramhormoz, Qom, and Isfahan.
It was the first time since April 1985 that Iraq had used its missiles against Iranian cities. Tehran said at least 135 civilians were killed, including 66 children whose school in Borujerd was struck by a missile.
Iran's reply, firing a long-range missile at Baghdad and three short-range rockets at Basra, brought further reports of civilian casualties. It also gave another twist to the spiral, triggering another series of Iraqi missile and air strikes on Iranian cities.
Some observers believe the timing of the latest attack may also have been affected by the political struggle over the holding of the fifth summit meeting of the Islamic nations, scheduled to start in Kuwait on Jan. 26. Iran has campaigned strongly against Kuwait as the venue, arguing that Kuwait supports Iraq in the war and cannot provide the necessary security for the meeting.