Monday, March 03, 1986

Gulf War: A New, More Complex Phase Has Begun

International Herald Tribune
By Drew Middleton

WASHINGTON — After two weeks’ fighting sparked by two widely separated Iranian offensives, the Gulf war seems no closer to an end than it was a month ago.

The second Iranian thrust took an undisclosed number of troops into northeastern Iraq where the invaders have occupied a considerable amount of real estate, but do not seem to have dealt any punishing blows to the defenders. The real danger to Iraq is that the Iranian force will push westward toward Kirkuk, the center of Iraq’s active oil industry.

Further south the well-advertised taking of the Iraqi port of Faw on the Gulf has not brought the dividends the Iranians expected. Their force there, although its morale remains high, is being subjected to heavy bombing by the Iraqi air force and one by one its supply lines are being cut.

The Iraqis, however, have failed to halt Iranian efforts to build a causeway across Abadan Island and the Shatt-al-Arab waterway to Faw. Should the invaders succeed, then the 30,000 Iranians in the bridgehead will get the supplies they need and Faw will become a major staging area for a push on the port city of Basra, a key objective but one that is heavily defended on all sides.

This is the present war situation in broad outline. Neither side normally permits neutral military attaches or reporters to visit the front.

Two offstage situations are likely to affect military operations; one political and the other economic. Intelligence organizations in the West have recently been paying more attention to the National Council of Resistance of Iran which appears to be expanding the insurgency against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s government.

The council has been labeled as “terrorist” by some in Washington and, of course, its claims must be viewed with skepticism. Nonetheless, there is considerable neutral support for the insurgents’ claim that in the past 12 months they have staged 200 demonstrations against the war, which means against the Khomeini government carrying on the war. There is also evidence that those demonstrators caught were tortured and executed. The National Council puts the figure at 50,000 executed and claims that the Khomeini government has executed 140,000 civilians since the start of the war in September 1980.

Intellectuals, merchants and bazaar workers are described as being very active in the insurgency. National Council sources also claim that more than 30 percent of the movement are women, not surprising considering the Khomeini regime’s fundamentalist Islamic strictures which relegate women to an inferior role in society.

The resistance, led by National Council chairman Massoud Rajavi, claims that it is active at 200 military bases in Iran and that it has won the allegiance of thousands of soldiers and airmen who joined the services under the shah.

Such claims cannot be proved. Western intelligence sources point out, however, that soon after the war with Iraq began, the Khomeini regime began to form the Revolutionary Guards. This was interpreted as an attempt to assemble military units whose loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini would never be questioned.

“It didn’t matter whether they were good soldiers or not,” a Western military expert on the war said, “as long as they followed Khomeini and his mullahs blindly.”

How are we to assess the National Council? Those who remember World War II will recall the glowing propaganda spewed out in London about various resistance groups. When the Allies invaded Normandy and later swept across France and Belgium, they found that resistance help was minimal at best.

The most that can be said about Iranian resistance is that it does exist, that it is getting increased support — especially from the Arab world that fears a Khomeini victory — and that it is amply financed, mostly from Iranian sources.

The resistance, consequently, must be considered a factor in the war situation, which is bound to become worse during this year.

Then there is the economic factor: Despite the victory at Faw and the spectacle of Iranian troops rampaging about in northern Iraq, Tehran’s leaders must accept that their oil exports have been cut to around 800,000 barrel a day as a result of the Iraqi air force’s attacks on the Kharg Island terminal and the important pumping station located at Ganaveh.

Iraq’s oil exports, in contrast, are now up to 1.7 million barrels a day and by agreement Kuwait and Saudi Arabia sell 350,000 barrels a day in Iraq’s name — an indication of the Arab gulf states’ continued support of Iraq in this war.

It is reasonably certain that the war has entered a new and more complex phase. Iran appears willing to take major losses in new offensives. Iraq, because of the enemy’s numerical superiority, must adopt a defensive strategy, one that has, thus far, been successful. But the resistance, a political element, and oil sales, an economic factor, are now in the picture.

1986 Drew Middleton