The Battle for Basra

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Ibrahim Al-Marashi
March 27, 2003

Reports of March 25-26 from British military forces stationed around Basra indicated that civilians in this city have revolted against Iraqi government forces. Taking Basra has numerous ramifications for US Operation Iraqi Freedom. First, on a military level, Basra is connected to Baghdad by the Basra-Baghdad highway; thus taking this city would be the first step in cutting off Saddam’s lifeline to the south. Second, if the civilians are in fact revolting, they may serve as a catalyst for other civilian uprisings in various Iraqi cities and towns. Additionally, Basra’s population is predominantly Shi’a, and a popular uprising there could inspire the Shi’a of the south to revolt in a similar fashion. Given its importance in this conflict, it is crucial to understand the role of Basra in the previous two Gulf Wars.

Iran’s primary objective during the Iran-Iraq War was to seize Basra and cut off Saddam’s access to the Gulf. To protect Basra, Iraq fortified the city with minefields, barbed wire, and an artificially flooded lake nearly 18 miles long.

In July 1982, Iran launched Operation Ramadan near Basra, using its elite Revolutionary Guards, as well as employing tactics against Iraqi positions. This battle was reportedly one of the biggest land battles since World War II. While the Iranians outnumbered the Iraqis, Iraq was still able to repulse the the invading forces.

In early 1984, Iran had begun Operation Dawn V which was intended to split the Iraqi military units near Basra. An estimated 500,000 troops came close to seizing the strategic Basra-Baghdad route. This battle resulted in 25,000 fatalities, and the Iranians failed to achieve their objective.

In March 1985, 60,000 Iranian troops reached 15 miles from the Baghdad-Basra highway. During this battle, Iraq unleashed a chemical weapons bombardment to prevent the Iranians from reaching this road.

In December 1986, Iran launched a final offensive to take Basra, resulting in 40,000 casualties. Iran nearly penetrated the last line of defense east of Basra, but the city was successfully defended by an Iraqi Shi’a general.

After the Second Gulf War, in March 1991, an uprising literally spread overnight throughout the south of Iraq. This uprising began in Basra when disgruntled Iraqi army officers fired tank rounds at a portrait of Saddam Hussein. The civilians of the city joined in what became known as the Iraqi Intifada, which spread to such towns as Nassiriyya, Najaf, and Karbala. However, the United States failed to support this uprising, and Iraq’s Republican Guard brutally crushed this revolt. Many of the Shi’a Muslims in the south of Iraq felt abandoned by the United States, which probably explains the lack of Iraqi civilian response to the current battles.

If the British reports are correct, then both the United States and the United Kingdom would have to act quickly to support the civilians in Basra. Doing so would help heal the scars of the 1991 uprising.

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