The Iran-Iraq

Military Conflict

By Dilip Hiro outledge. 323 pp. $49.95; paperback, $16.95

Were it not for the huge armies now primed and cocked in the Persian Gulf, few Americans would care to revisit the endless, often incompetent butchery that turned the marshy Iran-Iraq borderlands into an abattoir during much of the last decade.

But in some respects the current crisis is simply an extension of that earlier war. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2 partly in search of assets to pay off his $85 billion war debt; the United States responded with alacrity to Saudi requests for protection partly because the Iran-Iraq conflict had pushed Washington and Riyadh into an intense, largely secret military alliance beginning in early 1982.

Perhaps more to the point, Iraqi tactics, strategy and behavior during the Iran war surely foreshadow what the United States and its allies can expect to see if the shooting starts. If "know thy enemy" remains a fundamental principle of war, Americans should hope that U.S. military leaders have studied Iraq as closely as author Dilip Hiro has for "The Longest War," his account of Saddam's bloody conflict with Iran.

Saddam launched his invasion on Sept. 22, 1980, on the assumption that the war would be over in time to celebrate victory at an Islamic festival on Oct. 20. He miscalculated by eight years. The proximate cause of the conflict was Saddam's hope that military and economic chaos in revolutionary Iran would permit him to settle an old score on the cheap by grabbing half of the Shatt al Arab (the Arab River) that forms the southern part of Iraq's boundary with Iran and which he had ceded to Tehran in a 1975 treaty. This in turn reflected a rivalry that can be traced to the friction between the Ottoman and Persian empires, when Iraq was the easternmost province of the former.

Saddam's strategic goal was not much different than his apparent goal today. Politically, he hoped to become a dominating figure in the Arab world; economically, he wanted a larger economic stake in a region that contains more than half of the world's oil reserves. "The opportunities for Iraq were immense," Hiro writes; "the risks, if any, minimal."

The Iraqi president's true genius, however, lay not in geopolitical maneuvering, but in rallying his country to fight a defensive war while preserving himself. Within weeks, the war turned bad for Iraq. But as the momentum shifted to the forces of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iraq demonstrated a national cohesion and martial spirit that was only strengthened by Iran's counteroffensives.

"The Gulf War proved once again the old adage that safeguarding one's own land is easier than acquiring enemy territory," Hiro observes. "A defensive struggle against an Iran on the offensive helped Saddam Hussein to forge national unity to a degree he had not thought possible before."

Eight years of war, in effect, turned Iraq into a kind of Arab Sparta, militarizing the nation so that "military service and soldierly values dominated society." Saddam "realized that the armed forces were a far more effective tool to integrate society and state" than his Baathist Party ideals of pan-Arab socialism.

Iraq funneled 57 percent of its gross national product into the war, spending about $95 billion -- most of it borrowed -- in 95 months of combat. A country of 16 million put one-tenth of the population under arms, filling the labor void with 2 million "guest workers," who would become temporary hostages in the current crisis. Women filled more than half of all civilian administrative jobs. The nation took its 105,000 dead in stride, without overthrowing Saddam or simply capitulating; proportionate to population, U.S. losses in such a conflict would have been more than 1 1/2 million.

Saddam's popularity was hardly universal. He survived five assassination attempts in the first half of 1981 alone; Kurdish rebels pressed their cause, encouraged by Iran. (The ayatollah kept likening Saddam to the shah, perhaps the Persian equivalent of comparing him to Hitler.) Saddam repaid the Kurds on March 16, 1988, with the gassing of 4,000 civilians in Halabja, a town that could serve as a latter-day Guernica. One unfortunate weakness of Hiro's account in general is that he is dispassionate to the point of bloodless about such episodes; his history is thorough and objective, but rarely alive.

For the most part Saddam managed to persuade his countrymen that their fate was inextricably bound to his, their "struggler leader" whose speeches and sundry wisdom were compiled into a 312-volume collected works in 1984. Cynically portraying himself as a pious Moslem, he honored the Iraqi martyrs by giving their families two months' salary, plots of land and television sets. Troops were well fed and received frequent furloughs; deserters, shirkers and doubters were shot. Under the duress of war, Saddam stressed nationalism rather than Arab unity, free enterprise rather than Baathist socialism and, among his commanders, military competence rather than toadyism. As Hiro observes, Saddam demonstrated "extraordinary resolve in adverse circumstances, daring, tenacity and robust leadership."

In battle, Iraq fought badly on offense, cleverly and even valiantly on defense, albeit against a foe given to cannon-fodder tactics. Eight years of trench warfare gave Iraqi forces ample time to refine the four-tiered defenses now sprouting all over Kuwait and southern Iraq -- minefields, barbed wire and antitank trenches, with artillery and antiaircraft guns on the high ground. Certain defenses were ingenious if slightly medieval, such as a moat 10 feet deep, 18 miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide; another fortification project near Khorramshahr involved moving 400 million cubic feet of heavy clay at a cost of $1 billion.

Hiro also reminds us of the tentative, almost whimsical state of alliances in the Middle East. Egypt, whose expulsion from the Arab League had been largely engineered by Iraq, sold billions of dollars in arms to Saddam and provided 15,000 "volunteers" for his legions. Kuwait shipped up to 1,000 truckloads of supplies to Baghdad every day. Turkey, a secular society since 1924, shared Iraqi fears of Tehran-based Islamic fundamentalism and encouraged counterinsurgency against the Kurds. Saudi Arabia served as Saddam's banker. The ostensibly neutral United States provided vast amounts of intelligence data from satellites and airborne reconnaissance planes to Saddam, while even drafting contingency plans to attack Iranian tanks invading Iraqi territory.

The United States, as Hiro correctly notes, "could not allow the ultimate power to fix the rate of extraction and price of oil to slip from the hands of its close ally, Saudi Arabia, to revolutionary Iran." And that, except for a swapping of partners, is precisely why the United States is prepared to go to war today.

The reviewer, author of "The Long Gray Line," writes frequently on military issues for The Washington Post.