Iran-Iraq War: A Path To Nowhere (13)


Manoucher Avaznia
by Manoucher Avaznia

To the memory of the soldiers who fell before my eyes in the first Persian Gulf War. From my Iran-Iraq war memoirs that has been published in a book titled "A Path To Nowhere" >>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9 -- Part 10 -- Part 11 -- Part 12 -- Part 13 -- Part 14 --

New Factors

Climate changes always have deep and direct impacts on warriors and their equipments. Due to geographical characteristics of Khuzestan our war mission encountered serious climate changes late in the summer. In the second half of August the temperature fell considerably. It grew cool and nice at night and bearably warm during the day. As a result of temperature change a daily sand storm began to blow from northwest toward southeast. As days advanced the storm escalated in strength, raising sand and dust to the air and considerably reducing our visibility. To protect our faces and eyes, sometimes we put on our gas masks: the only benefit they could offer. Only then, we could see a distance of about ten meters away in the midst of the storm.

The storm seriously damaged most of the bunkers. Roofs were torn off; walls were eroded; bunkers became carpeted with sand; and trenches were so filled that we had to empty them twice a day. Our food and water were not spared. While eating, grains of sand would break between our teeth. Connecting roads were filled and vehicles would stall in the drift. A few soldiers always accompanied vehicles with shovels at the ready to empty the roads and push the vehicles out. If there were no soldier, the driver had to seek help from nearest units to push his vehicle out.

The storm affected our weapons as well. It blew sand into their little holes and slots and made them work with difficulty. Resultantly, weapons shot only a few times before being jammed. Sand buried the ammunitions, as well. To keep the weapons in working conditions, soldiers had to clean them several times a day. They gradually learned to wrap them in a piece of cloth and keep them wrapped for the whole day. Although unwrapping delayed their usage, having them wrapped kept them clean and in working conditions. Munitions, also, had to be dug out of the sand every day, cleaned, and re-stored.

Our understanding of Iraqis activities was seriously affected due to reduced visibility. The storm reduced observation range to one hundred meters at the most. It was an especial disadvantage for the Iranians who mostly came from environments colder than Khuzestan’s and had little exposure to sand storms and were not experienced in dealing with the problems they raised, whereas Iraqis were chiefly familiar with the sand and they mainly had been born, grown, and lived in desert and semi-desert environments.

As September advanced, the weather grew cooler and ferocity of the storm gradually dwindled. By mid-September it fully stopped and we had a different landscape. Many dune hills and knolls had been created; many of them had become shorter or higher; and many had been totally erased. In places exposed to powerful erosion deep channels had been dug. Bushes and brambles had either been buried under the dune or had been taken far away. Roots of many trees and bushes had come to the surface and piles of rusted cartridge shells and bomb shrapnel had surfaced.

By autumn 1987 we had passed through some very important domestic and international crises and events that had deep and durable impacts on us. Perhaps the deepest and the most important crisis was an economic crisis.

Since my arrival to the front I had noticed that the soldiers' salaries were not being paid at the conclusion of each month; instead they were paid once every few months. The amount was meager: ordinary soldiers making one hundred thirty Tumans (one dollar in the day’s free market exchange rate) a month. The soldiers who had grade twelve made two hundred and fifty Tumans a month. The former could buy only one kilogram of meat with his monthly salary and the latter two kilograms. When his salary was delayed, the soldier had a long procedure of filling out forms in order to get paid in the coming year's budget.

In the early years of the war soldiers received their field allowance at the end of every month. Now, the government was short of cash and payments were put off until the next year or even postponed until the conclusion of soldiers’ military service. There were many soldiers who had concluded their military service and the army still owed them many thousands of Tumans. I received no field allowance what so ever.

Due to the same factor in the spring of 1987 amount of field allowance was cut to two thirds of what personnel used to receive. Only the personnel on offence were paid the full allowance. According to the new regulations a minor staff officer with the rank of lieutenant who used to make 285 Tumans a day made 190 Tumans a day. Conscript officers, sergeants, and soldiers who used to make 60 Tumans a day now made only 40 Tumans. This reduction aggravated the already low morale especially among professional soldiers. It most disappointed those who in their planning had counted on their field allowance.

Salaries and field allowance were entrusted to an officer or sergeant to pay them out. In the early days of the war the amount was huge and alluring. Sometimes, the people in charge of payments ran away with the money. In some instances they had fled the country altogether. Besides, there were many soldiers who had been killed or wounded and would not get their money and their families did not know how to collect them. There were rumors that the people in charge of payments forged signatures and kept the money for themselves.

In the early years of the war families of the victims who were called Martyrs Families were awarded 200,000 Tumans blood price by a government agency called the Martyr Foundation. These families enjoyed other government benefits such as cheap tractors, highly discounted cars, free religious pilgrimage tours to Mecca and Syria. As the government’s financial situation worsened these lavish expenditures stopped. Now, the government paid funeral expenses and a free pilgrimage for one family member either to Syria or to Mecca.

These were happening while Rial’s purchase power was shrinking and that summer we faced another wave of inflation. The ever-inflating prices had a mechanism that was implemented by the government and the free market whose businessmen had profound influence in the ruling circle’s decision-making process. The government raised the price of a specific commodity by a certain amount and this price raise affected other commodities right away. Also, the raised price of that certain commodity would not remain at the raised level or they would not stay confined to the same products; it normally went a few times higher than the raised amount and affected other commodities and services.

Basic needs had been rationed since 1981 through coupons, but it was not the only way the economy was working through. Numerous government-produced or government-imported commodities could be purchased in free market at high prices. The government diverted them to black market through its own agents to make more money for the new ruling elite and the war. So, these two market systems worked side by side. Every kind of goods was available in the black market for a price. Only the poor had to endure the line-ups of the rationed goods. In addition, there was the free market of the “Bazaar”: the market.

Historically the Bazaar had close ties with the mosques and religious schools. Religious schools, public bathhouses, and mosques were built in the market places: a feature that still can be easily distinguished in traditional planning and structure of Iranian cities. In this way the religious schools and the market were always closely connected. Bazaaris: merchants known as hajjee: someone who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca, did not pay any taxes except their religious duties and what they donated to religious schools. This money saved those schools from the secularist policies of the last two Shahs of Iran and strengthened their relations with religious leaders.

As early as the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 the Bazaaris had been politically active. Especially in Tehran they had always supported some nationalistic and religious trends of politicians against Western sway that had started to dominate Iran since early Nineteenth Century. The last Shah of Iran brought the Bazzaris’ activities under more control by means of encouraging industrialism and mass importing of consumer goods paid by oil money and domestically sold at low prices; but this policy dragged the Baazaris deeper into the lines of the revolutionaries under the religious leadership as they helped the revolution with their money. During the goods shortages of autumn and winter 1978-79 some cooperative shops appeared in cities and sold basic commodities of public need at low prices. Originally, the Baazaris who favored the revolution financed and ran those shops. The cooperative shops and goods were totally closed after the victory as the Baazaris were given a free hand to reap the profits of the victory. Now, the Bazaaris constituted the wealthiest strata in the society. Their hands were freed to such an extent that they made as much money in the several years after the revolution as they had made in the previous fifty years. Through the unhealthy mechanism of the market, the Bazaaris substituted the most influential wealthy families who ran the country under the last Shah.

Free market in Iran does not have the same meaning as it does in the West. Instead of competition, there is monopolization of prices in the hands of the Bazaaris. They receive hard currencies from the government at low exchange rates to import goods. Once the goods are imported, they hold them back in order to raise the prices. Once prices are a few times higher than what they are supposed to be, the Baazaris give them to the market little by little. There is no consumers association or government intervention to protect consumers’ interests. This artificial shortage of good and inflation affects other commodities and a race for hoarding starts.

This economic ailment always had the support of the ruling revolutionary elite. After a serious medicine shortage in 1986 the government, through people's assistance, discovered huge stores of hoarded medicines in Tehran. The day’s Meer Hossein Mousavi government took a bill to the Islamic Assembly to outlaw hoarding. After lengthy debates the Assembly concluded that under Prophet Mohammad only raisin, wheat, millet, and another item, whose name I have forgotten, were prohibited to hoard. In any case, that item was not among the basic needs of the community. The divine law held that hoarding the rest of the goods was not hoarding. The bill was rejected and the merchants of the Bazaar continued their plunder of the poor whose children were to protect the system by fighting in the front line of the war.

The result of such a free market policy was an out-of-control inflation that was ruining every aspect of life in revolutionary Iran. In the summer of 1987 the inflation was affecting us at the front. We rarely bought anything at the fronts; yet our expenses surpassed our income. The field allowance of conscript personnel was enough to pay for a pack of very low quality cigarettes called Zar. If he smoked, he had to spend his field- allowance those days and receive it one year later. As a result, soldiers’ money was not enough to pay the fare to go on leave. Most of the times they borrowed money to go on leave. At home their families had to support them and give them money to repay their debt as well as to buy their return tickets. In the inflationary circumstances families provided the money with difficulties. Nevertheless, they felt obligated to make the sacrifice in order to see their loved ones once in every two months or more.

As economic situations deteriorated people crawled deeper to their shells. In a situation of vast unemployment and soaring inflation they tried to keep their own life going. Indifference toward the war grew rapidly. Blaming the war on an international Imperialistic conspiracy against Islamic Republic had no listener any more.

The economic crisis probably contributed to the young men refraining the compulsory military service. Having a military service conclusion card no longer brought employment. There were not enough job openings in the country and having conclusion cards were useless. Resistance against the war was so strong that the government resorted to punishment to provide the needed manpower for the front lines. Since two years earlier they had started catching the men who had no military service conclusion cards and sending them to garrisons. Since summer 1986 a punishment factor was added to the arrests. Men who postponed military service received two kinds of punishments. Those who voluntarily introduced themselves to the soldiery centers received three months of extra service and those who were arrested and were sent to the army were given six months of extended service.

In the same summer of 1987, the People's Mojahedin of Iran: Mojahedin-e Khalgh-e Iran, established the National Liberation Army of Iran: NLA, in Iraq. With the goals of peace and freedom, the NLA was to fight the Khomeini government war policy until its downfall and the establishment of a “Transitional Democratic Islamic Republic” government in its place. Supporters and members of the Mojahedin constituted the core and main body of the NLA. The rest of the NLA forces were the people who ideologically differed from Mojahedin, but had the same stance against the Islamic Republic of Iran and its war.

One difference between the NLA and the Mojahedin was in ideology. Members of the organization ideologically believed in the causes of the Mojahedin whereas others were expected to follow the discipline and order of the newly founded army and not necessarily the ideology of the Mojahedin. Another difference was tactical. While before the establishment of the NLA the Mojahedin were merely fighting the Guards, now the NLA was fighting both the Guards and the army. Both of these tactics converged on the idea that the first step for any political change in Iran was imposition of peace on the government as they had said: “peace is the regime’s hanging rope”. The Mojahedin relaxed their ideological restrictions for this national cause in such an extent that they allowed those people who stood against the war to enter its ranks. The last difference was participation of women in the ranks of NLA: a step without precedence in the Iranian history. When we remember that the Khomeini government was depriving women from many social rights and activities and was forcing them to stay at home, we can understand the contrast between the NLA and the Islamic Republic’s opinions regarding women's role and rights in the society. I heard about NLA military operations on western fronts. From radio I heard the Mojahedin asking Iranians to join them; but I was skeptical about them and was inclined to think that establishment of such an army was an empty bluff that politics-involved people had invented to keep their presence in people's mind. Oncoming events showed that I was too much of a skeptic to realistically understand the events that were taking place around me. NLA inflicted heavy blows on the army and the Guards and became one of the important factors that determined the fate of the war.

On the international scene the United Nations Security Council ratified Resolution 598 on July 20, 1987. Before then the Security Council had ratified two resolutions about the First Persian Gulf War asking both sides to stop fighting and start negotiating their disputes. In neither of the previous resolutions the Council indicated who the initiator of the war was. For the same reason the Iranian side had rejected the resolutions. It was known to the Security Council that had started the war by invading Iran, but the Council came short of condemning the invader. Resolution 598 repeated the previous recommendations about ending military operations; though, it contained an important article that recognized the uncompromising side as war-seeker and asked for an arms embargo against it. This article made Resolution 598 tougher than the previous ones. Why was the Security Council tougher this time? Why it was using the threat of arms embargo? What were the relations between Iranian and Iraqi economic bankruptcy and the new resolution? Had the Security Council grown more concerned about peace and human life?

In my belief the motive for the new stance was not considerations of peace or concerns about those who were losing their lives and livelihoods. The same Security Council had been a few days late in the first days of the Iraqi invasion of Iran before asking for an end to hostilities. The only factor concerning the Security Council was economic bankruptcy of both countries due to the continuation of the war. Neither country could pay for the weapons the permanent members of the Security Council were providing to both sides. Iraq had accumulated a huge foreign debt of over three hundred billion Dollars and Iranian economic situation was grim. If the Security Council had wished to stop the war, it would have imposed an arms embargo several years earlier.

The resolution indicated that the most important arms suppliers in the world stage were no longer satisfied with the war. Still the resolution left the conflict unresolved. There was no hint to the initiator of the war; and therefore, Iraq agreed to the intent of the resolution while Khomeini totally rejected it. His position had radically changed though. No longer Khomeini wanted Saddam Hossein and the Baath Party’s removal from power. With this rejection a good opportunity for a peaceful solution of the war was lost; and as a result, the Iranian government was implicitly recognized as the war-seeker; but arms shipment continued. In the same autumn a weapon named S.P.G.9.was given to the infantry platoons to be used against both armored vehicles and personnel gatherings. We were told weapon had been bought from Bulgaria; or, perhaps, Soviets were selling it to Iran through that country.

Rejection of the United Nations’ resolutions and other peace initiatives by international organizations such as Islamic Conference indicated a deadlock. Iran convinced the world that there was no path to peace except through war. Its war-machine had to be destroyed or paralyzed to bring it to the negotiation table. This policy was internationally pursued since summer. was receiving advanced war technology and political support while Iran was losing almost all of them.

Meanwhile the war of oil tankers intensified in the Persian Gulf. In 1987 oil shipping became very dangerous. A few years earlier Iraq had begun bombing Iranian oil facilities and the ships that carried Iranian oil to the market. The main goal behind this bombing was to internationalize the conflict and draw the intervention of big powers in order to put more pressure on Iran. In retaliation, when there was no active Iraqi vessel in the Persian Gulf, Iran hit the ships that carried Saudi and Kuwaiti oil as these countries sided with the Iraqi side of the conflict.

In September 1985 the Iranian government claimed some ships were sending military equipments for through Kuwaiti and Saudi ports and decided to inspect the cargoes that passed through the Hormoz Strait. Thus, a menace against all kind of shipping in the Persian Gulf started; though, it was practical only against some weak countries that could not defend their ships against Iranian inspection. It especially threatened the Kuwaiti and Saudi ships.

These two Sheikhdoms from the beginning of the war had actively supported Iraq. Their financial aid enabled to pay for huge amounts of weapons it bought from suppliers; they provided ships and facilities for ; also, they supplemented Iraq with military information that American satellites and spying planes collected.

The next step in the war of oil tankers was a Kuwaiti request of the Russian navy to escort her ships in the Persian Gulf. Russian reluctance to get involved in a provocative action led to the Kuwaiti request of the United States to escort Kuwaiti ships. The Reagan administration welcomed the request and considerably increased American naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

This increased presence was simultaneous with a vast propaganda in Iran about the U.S. threat against Iranian sovereignty. Domestic agitation rose again, though remarkably less than previous years. The government took the U.S. presence seriously. However some fire was exchanged between Iranian Guards and American navy and Americans bombarded some Iranian oilrigs and drowned a few Iranian boats, it seemed unlikely that the U.S. was willing to commit a full-scale military enterprise against Iran. Such an enterprise could have set the oil-rich region of the Persian Gulf on fire: something that neither America and her European allies nor Japan wanted. American war build-up was a direct threat to the Iranian security and sovereignty; and so preparations for a probable confrontation with the United States started. These preparations were affecting us at the war fronts against Iraq.

Some battalions named the Persian Gulf Battalions were established to defend Iranian seashores in the south. Some army personnel along Klashinkov rifles, that were more suitable for naval battle than the G3s, were taken away and sent to the coasts of the Persian Gulf; and the whole project became another burden on the Iranian shaky economy. Indeed, the Persian Gulf project was a great extension of a battlefront already too long. Although not active yet, the Persian Gulf battle line had some logistical problems of an active battlefront.

The threat of an American likely invasion of Iran or bombardment of some ports and shipping facilities was partially responsible for the paralysis of the Iranian government's war machine. Iranian forces were already stretched thin along a border more than a thousand kilometers long and now the coastal line had been added to the area of defense. This meant Iran had to handle a war in a front longer than three thousand kilometers. Military and political leaders of the Islamic Republic were fully aware that Iran lacked the vast resources required to enable her to manage three thousand kilometers of battlefront.

The same summer another internationally important event occurred and that was the massacre of Iranian Hajj pilgrims in Mecca. Since 1979 Iranian Hajj pilgrims had held peaceful demonstrations in Mecca for the unity of Moslems and against Israel and America that constituted the infidels of the modern world. Gradually, the Iranian government had begun to direct the demonstrations. On July 31, 1987 Iranian pilgrims participated in their usual demonstrations of “Bara’at Az Moshrekeen: keeping aloof the polytheists”. This time the Saudi police opened fire on them massacring some four hundred: mostly government-supported men and women.

This move further tarnished the relationships between the two major Islamic countries. The Saudis were driven deeper to the war. Almost an aerial combat took place over the Persian Gulf between the two sides. Saudi’s rendered more financial assistance to Iraq. Angry demonstrators in Tehran attacked the Saudi embassy and inflicted some damages. Khomeini released a long public letter in the condemnation of the Saudi action, calling the Saudi kings “Rulers of Hejaz”: the mountainous western flanks of the present Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic relations dwindled to the lowest level and threats of vengeance against the Saudi ruling family were pledged. Nothing came out of them, however.

Beside the above movements, the spring and summer of 1987 were relatively quiet. The war seemed at an impasse. Calculating people might have understood the tide of the war was turning against Iran. I was not among those people, especially that I could see some activities in Fakkeh. Iranian side was crawling closer to the enemy lines in order to stage an incursion. Narrowing the wide area that separated the two sides was necessary. To do the job, in late summer of 1987 tens of bulldozers were assembled to build an embankment closer to Iraqi positions. In a nightly operation all bulldozers drove to the front and built a curved embankment with its tip advanced towards Iraqi positions. This enterprise was called liberating Iranian territories. Iranians did not attack that night, though subsequent heavy fire exchanges took many Iranian lives including Babak’s and ten of his soldiers’ who were the first unit to be dispatched to protect the new front lines. Neekvarz was the first person to let me know about the tragedy. Although he had left our company, that night he was visiting us with some of his soldiers. Before driving to Zeerakee’s bunker he stayed in the base to exchange a few words with me. He was highly excited and smoked two cigarettes in a few minutes.

“All ten of them died instantly after their truck was hit by a tank shell,” he uttered in a rash tone.

After the embankment was completed infantry forces moved in, with supporting platoons of 120mm mortars moving behind the old embankment that we used to defend in the spring. In its early stages we assumed the new embankment was a preparation for an attack on Iraqi positions, but nothing happened. Probably diversion of attentions to the Persian Gulf made such an incursion untimely. Although it was well armed and fully fortified, the new curve was the weakest spot in the region. Besides being under constant Iraqi fire, it could be easily cut off by the forces that could capture Shush-Ammareh Road and advance southward and put a siege on a sizeable area behind the curved embankment.

In early autumn the war of cities resumed. This time Iranian Guards used what was said to be a Chinese Silkworm surface-to-surface missile against Baghdad and destroyed a school killing everybody inside. Radio Baghdad raved about the incident and promised vengeance. Within days they chemically bombed the headquarters of Eighty-eight Armored Army of Zahedan and the headquarters of one of its regiment in Sumar (25).

The day after the bombardment Haghee came to the base and spoke to soldiers.

"They have used a mixture of gases and have killed quite a few at the headquarters," he said.

He ordered soldiers to carry their gas masks anywhere they went and added that he would discipline anybody caught not carrying gas mask and promised new masks to replace the old impaired ones, but he promised no anti-gas injection or bottle.

The same day new German-made masks arrived and were distributed among the personnel. The suppliers of poison gas to were selling masks to Iran.

In mid-autumn the problem of personnel shortage at fronts re-surfaced. Strong rumors circulated that four more months had been added to the two-year compulsory military service. A short while later the rumors were confirmed and military service was extended an additional four months. This increase temporarily solved the problem of personnel shortage; however it deeply demoralized soldiers and offset the measure. For the soldiers who counted the days left to their conclusion date enduring four more months in the wilderness of war was devastating. People's growing indifference toward war deprived them of their morale support. I heard many soldiers complaining about the extended service term without having any answer except recommending they should not return to the front once they went on leave.

The worst result of the extended service term was an increased number of self-inflicted injuries. There were some suicide cases as well. In the parking lot of our own battalion a soldier shot himself in the head and died. This case resonated so loud in the battalion and the regiment that commanders denied the extension of military service was to blame. They said the soldier had been mentally disordered. This brought another accusation. Was the army so desperate that it conscripted mentally disordered youths, armed them, and sent them to the war zone?>>> Part 14

>>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9 -- Part 10 -- Part 11 -- Part 12 -- Part 13 -- Part 14 --


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