Iran gave up its last major foothold in Iraq without a fight yesterday. Military analysts had expected Iraq to face stiff resistance in its attempt to regain the Kurdish town of Halabja in northeastern Iraq. Some analysts believe that Iran's best fighters within the dedicated Revolutionary Guard were deployed in the region.
In announcing the pullback, the Iranian news agency said that Iranian forces were taking up new positions ``to maintain more secure approaches to continue our sacred defense.''
[It did not reveal if Iranian forces had moved back across international borders from Halabja, which lies about nine miles inside Iraq, Reuters says.]
Meanwhile, on the central war front, elite Iraqi Presidential Guards - in a now-familiar scenario - shelled and then attacked at 7:15 a.m. yesterday Iranian positions east of Al-Amarah town in the Zubaidat border area of Iraq. The area had been held by Iran since mid-1982. An Iraqi communiqu'e said that by 11 a.m. Iraqi troops had ``completely liberated'' the area.
The Presidential Guards, estimated to number some 90,000, have been used as shock troops in each of Iraq's previous, successful counterattacks - at Faw, Shalamcheh, and Majnoon. They are said to be highly motivated and well-trained. They were supported by regular troops from Iraq's Fourth Corps, which has responsibility for that region of the front.
The Zubaidat victory and the Halabja pullback are seen by analysts in the Gulf as another blow to Iranian Speaker of the Parliament Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was named commander in chief of Iran's armed forces by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on June 2. The Rafsanjani appointment was made in an effort to halt Iran's war-front losses and to regain the iniative in the war with Iraq.
Last March Iranian forces and Iraqi Kurdish rebels captured Halabja in a surprise attack. Iraqi officials had recently suggested that a great battle would take place soon to recapture the town.
Earlier this week, heavy fighting, including some hand-to-hand combat, has been reported in the mountainous Penjwin region north of Halabja near the Iran-Iraq border.
It was unclear where the Iranian forces retreating from Halabja set up their new defenses. Halabja is situated in a flat valley surrounded by rolling hills rising into the steep Zagros mountains.
An Iraqi official in Baghdad said recently that Iraq had issued warnings to Iranian troops in the Halabja region that they should withdraw or face being trapped in the valley after having their retreat route cut by the Iraqis.
There are only a few single lane dirt roads through the mountains to the Iranian border. The roads in places are carved into sheer cliffsides and could be easily blocked if bombed by the Iraqis.
The Iranian pullback, and the ongoing, slow Iranian retreat across a wide section of Kurdish-inhabited Iraq, also marks a significant setback for Kurdish rebels who had aligned themselves with the Iranians in the hope of eventually creating an autonomous ``Kurdistan.''
The Kurds have been made to suffer for their alliance with Tehran. Many analysts believe Iraq's chemical attack on Halabja last March, which killed an estimated 5,000 Kurdish men, women, and children, was meant by Iraq as a warning to other Kurds not to help the Iranians. At the same time Iraqi troops have continued a concerted campaign to depopulate sections of Kurdistan, including forced relocation and the razing of entire villages.
As Iranian troops pull back into Iran, the Kurds will now face the full fury of Iraqi forces bent not only on driving Iran out of Iraq's northern regions but also on punishing the Iraqi Kurds for cooperating with the Iranians. The Kurdish rebels are viewed in Baghdad as traitors.
``They can't eliminate the guerrillas entirely, but I wouldn't want to be Barzani or Talabani when the [Iran-Iraq] war is over,'' a Western diplomat in Baghdad said recently, referring to the two Kurdish leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani.
He adds, ``They will probably really go after them.''