Gulf battles: fierce, but not decisive. Though Iran has foothold, Iraq's main defense lines are still intact

Despite battles raging on two fronts, and air and missile attacks on towns in both Iraq and Iran, the Persian Gulf conflict remains fundamentally stalemated, analysts say. But six days into the offensive Iran launched in the border wetlands southeast of Basra on the night of Jan. 8, the Iraqis had still not been able to dislodge Iranian forces from positions they seized inside Iraq.

However, say sources with access to satellite reports - at present, the only form of independent information - the Iranians had not been able to reach or capture any of the main Iraqi fortified defense lines in the area. They add, however, that Iran had managed to pour up to 60,000 men into the foothold it had gained in Iraqi territory.

If so, the Iraqis face a major task - and would have to take heavy casualties - in trying to dislodge the Iranians, analysts say. Yet Iraq can hardly afford to tolerate an entrenched Iranian presence so close to Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

If the Iranians manage to entrench their presence south of Basra, analysts say, the pattern of last February may be repeated. At that time, the Iranians thrust across the Shatt al Arab waterway, further south. They are still there, having defied all of Iraq's efforts to dislodge them.

While of limited military significance, the Iranian occupation of part of Iraq's Faw Peninsula was a considerable blow to the Iraqi Army's prestige and morale. Tehran has often pointed out that the Iraqis' heavily defended and intricate system of fortifications and flooded trenches failed to oust Iran. The Iranians managed to gain ground on the Iraqi side of the border and have held on to it despite Iraq's much-vaunted air superiority.

Iraqi war communiqu'es, issued daily, have said the Iranians are bottled up in a small area between a lake and the border, and that Iraqi troops were ``continuing to clear the area of the enemy, in accordance with a specific plan.'' Yet, the communiqu'es concede that the Iranians have been able to mount repeated attacks from their initial footholds.

In the early days of last week's Iranian offensive, code named ``Karbala 5,'' analysts assessing satellite information believed one of its aims may have been to draw Iraqi reserves down from the central sector. They thought the Iranians might then launch another - perhaps bigger - assault in that area.

The same sources now say Iraq did not fall for the ploy, if that indeed was Iran's strategy. They say Iraq brought in some armor reinforcements, but did not divert reserves from the central sector.

Nonetheless, the Iranians went ahead with a second blow on the central front Tuesday night, launching an attack on Iraqi border positions in the mountainous sector north-east of Baghdad.

Iraqi communiqu'es show clearly that Baghdad shares the military analysts' assessment that Tuesday's attack was intended as a follow-up blow linked to the earlier attack in the Basra sector.

While Baghdad celebrated the outcome as a major victory, Tehran also claimed success in its second thrust, though describing it as only a ``limited operation'' to regain Iranian territory occupied by Iraq since the war began in September 1980.

Tehran said its forces had ``liberated'' 14 strategic positions, comprising about 40 square miles of land. It said Iranian troops had killed or wounded 1,000 Iraqis - a modest tally in comparison with claims usually issued by both sides, which observers generally regard as inflated.

If the Iranian indications are accurate, the thrust in the central sector must have been more of a border probe than a fully-fledged offensive. By contrast, informed sources say that satellite pictures show the Iranian attack in the Basra sector initially involved at least 36,000 Iranian troops - a sizable assault.

But clearly, neither attack in itself adds up to the ``grand offensive'' which Iranian leaders have been promising for many months. Some analysts have said, though, that these may be the opening moves in such a wider strategy.

While a major offensive has been widely predicted for the coming months, many published reports have claimed that the Iranian Army opposes a massive onslaught, believing that military victory is simply not possible.

The continued ``war of the cities,'' with both sides using missiles and warplanes to strike at population centers far from the battlefront, has added a rancor to the conflict. But military analysts regard it as having little bearing on the course of the war.

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