IT was the beginning of the end of the Iran-Iraq war. In the early morning hours of April 17, 1988, Iraqi troops burst out of trenches on the Al Faw Peninsula, at the head of the Persian Gulf, where they had been hunkered down for more than two years. In a fast-moving campaign combining shock infantry, amphibious assault, air support, and chemical weapons, they shattered overconfident Iranian defenders.
The battle was so decisive that Iran claimed Iraq must have received help from both Kuwaiti and United States forces. Four months later a cease-fire brought the decade-long war to a close.
One thing United States military planners glean from that event is that Iraq has no problem fighting on Islamic holy days, as the attack was launched during Ramadan. But its most chilling implication is more general: Iraqi forces are unlikely to be pushovers in any ground war.
``The Iraqis are much better fighters than was formerly believed,'' concludes an Army War College study completed early in 1990. Even as allied warplanes continue to strike at targets in Iraq and Kuwait, the coming clash of armies seems the real time of reckoning in the new Persian Gulf war. With 545,000 troops in the Kuwaiti theater of operation, Saddam Hussein remains a formidable opponent, no matter how much ``softening up'' bombs have accomplished.
Saddam's lack of military reaction so far to the allied bombardment remains a puzzle. But almost surely some sort of military plan is in the works. ``Americans assume that because an opponent is less technologically advanced than we are [he] thinks less well than we do. That's not necessarily true,'' says Alan Sabrosky, Rhodes College professor and former head of the Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
Predicting Saddam's thinking has proved a frustrating task throughout the Gulf crisis. But the record of the Iran-Iraq war may provide some insight into how Iraq will fight, and what US forces will have to do in return.
In general, Iraq's experience in its war with Iran shows that:
Saddam Hussein may defer to professional military judgment. The fight with Iran was going badly until an extraordinary Ba'ath Party Congress in 1986, at which it appears Saddam ``relinquished control over the conduct of the war to his military leaders,'' according to a 1989 Army War College study by Lt. Col. Ronald Rokosy.
Iraq has no more stomach for taking casualties than does the US. With most of its young men in service and fighting a country with a huge manpower advantage, Iraq did everything it could to minimize its human losses, including careful attack planning and reliance on artillery to do the work.
``They were not at all the kind to jump out of tanks with their butcher knives and just attack the enemy,'' says Ronald Hatchett, a Texas A&M defense studies professor.
The question is not if chemical weapons will be used in the ground war, but when. Their use against Iranian breakthroughs became standard practice. Chemical artillery and mortar shells are likely to ``routinely be integrated in defensive fire plans,'' judges the 1990 Army War College study.
Scud missile attacks are an important aspect of Iraqi military strategy. Iraq's pummeling of Tehran with missiles caused extensive damage and many casualties, and was a major factor in turning weary Iranians against the war.
IF fighting comes, it's clear that the anti-Iraq coalition will be dealing with a military practiced in defense. That's a role Saddam Hussein had thrust upon him. When he launched his invasion of Iran in 1980, he badly miscalculated Iranian will to resist, and his forces often performed ineptly. Thrown back into their own territory by 1982, they erected elaborate defensive fortifications against Iranian human wave attacks.
Front-line Iraqi troops had TV, air-conditioning, even phones in their bunkers, according to one account. Protection came from three-meter high earthen berms running in front of triangular strong points of dug-in infantry and tanks.
To counter Iran's manpower and zeal, Iraq used firepower, emphasizing heavy armored forces and what by US military standards was profligate use of long-range artillery ammunition. ``Iraq routinely seems to expend about one US Army `week' of munitions per weapon per day when it is in intense combat,'' writes Georgetown University professor Anthony Cordesman in his study of the Iran-Iraq fighting.
But to force Iran back, Saddam Hussein needed more than a static army. Thus, the Republican Guard. Between 1986 and 1988, the Iraqi leader rapidly expanded this elite force, giving it extensive offensive training and using its cachet to lure educated young Iraqis eager for palace connections into the military. It was Guard units, plus elements of the regular Iraqi Army VII Corps, that spear-headed the Faw offensive, turning the tide of the war.
Against the allies the Republican Guard, now in southern Iraq, ``would be employed to blunt breakthroughs on the Kuwaiti front, meet an allied flanking movement from the West, or defend Basra,'' according to Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But for all its strengths, Iraq still faces an overwhelming military force arrayed against it. Iraqi forces are schooled in set-piece battles in which attacking forces are lured into preset ``killing zones,'' stopped by artillery, and broken by armored counterattack.
But the mobility of coalition ground forces, combined with their long-range rocket and artillery strength, means Iraq will likely not be able to fight on ground of its own choosing.
``Wresting the initiative from the Iraqi Army is the key to neutralizing its operations,'' concludes the prescient 1990 War College report.