After seven days of warfare with Iran, an Iraqi strategy is emerging that emphasizes taking over the vast, empty countryside surrounding the region's major cities and trying to force them to surrender.
So far, Iraq has not committed its infantry to the sort of classic ground assaults necessary to overrun the key population centers of Iran's oil-producing Khuzestan Province. Instead, Iraqi forces have chosen to surround cities such as Abadan, Khorramshahr and now, possibly, Ahwaz, leaving it to artillery and tank barrages to induce besieged Iranian garrisons to lay down their arms.
This has yet to happen, but the Iranian defenders apparently are growing increasingly beleaguered.
To the Iraqis, however, the mere fact that a town is besieged is interpreted as its being actually taken, although the battles of Abadan and Khorramshahr have now demonstrated that there remains a large difference between the two.
The fact thus remains that for all of Iraq's claims of fast movement through Khuzestan Province this week, its advance has been nothing like a blizkrieg. Talk of mileage pentrated into Iran appears to have little relevance since the front -- around the cities defended by Iranians -- has, in fact, remained relatively stationary to date.
Another part of Iraq's war strategy apparently is to issue statements aimed at creating confusion among the enemy and scaring Iranians out of their urban strongholds.
So it is that the battle between the two government's communiques appears to be fiercer than the actual fight between their respective armies on the ground.
To follow the official statements emanating form the capitals in Baghdad and Tehran is to be told that both sides are winning the war.
But as in so many previous conflicts in this part of the world, what is said is all too often different from what is done.
"One side is valiantly advancing on all fronts," said one Western observer here. "The other side is successfully repulsing the enemy elsewhere."
On this seventh day of the war between the two OPEC nations, there was no greater example of that fact that in the claims about the status of Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan.
Saturday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Saadoun Hammadi claimed that Ahwaz, 50 miles into Iran, had fallen to "victorious Iraqi forces." That claim was embellished in the Iraqi general command's communique No. 41, which asked rhetorically: "Do you know where your great Army is now? It is an Ahwaz."
But according to evidence today, that claim, at the very least, was premature -- if not outright disinformation. News agency correspondents in talk with residents who confirmed that there had been some clashes on the outskirts but denied that the city has fallen. Broadcasts in Persian by Ahwaz radio, on its usual frequency, tended to confirm that the city was still very much in Iranian hands.
Iran's counterclaims to have "valiantly repulsed" the Iraqi advance on Ahwaz after their helicopter gunships wiped out a huge column of Iraqi tanks were equally hard to accept, given evidence on the ground so far that revolutionary Iran's purged armed forces have proven unable to turn the tide of Iraq's four-pronged military attacks into Khuzestan.
There were further conflicting claims today over an Iraqi statement that they had taken the town of Gilan Garb on the road to Kermanshah, 20 miles inside central Iran, and were preparing to "occupy" the important military garrison town of Dezful, north of Ahwaz.
Independent assessment of the Iraqi claims so far has proven impossible, as Iraqi military authorities have frustrated requests and independent efforts by observers to visit the Ahwaz and central fronts.
The reported "capture" of Ahwaz and other places has parallels in the announcements earlier in the week of Iraqi "victories" in taking the refinery city of Abadan and its port of Khorramshahr on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.
Both those cities were surrounded and besieged within 24 hours of the Iraqi Army advance into Iran last Tuesday. But as of today, although some advance Iraq units were inside part of Khorramshahr, Iranian resistance was continuing. Despite steady Iraqi artillery and tank shelling of the two cities, neither, in fact, has fallen.
The reasons for the discrepancies between claims and deeds seem to lie in the nature of the territory in which the war is being waged, as well as the Iraqi way of warfare.
The main area of the conflict lies on the vast, barren, sparsely inhabited plain of Khuzestan, which is a natural geological extension of southeastern Iraq. Between the few towns and cities, there are nothing but empty wastes separated by dusty tracks and the odd road, which wind their way through a moonscape broken only by occasional groves of mesquite trees or date palms.
Aside from besieging Khuzestan's few urban centers, Iraqi forces have moved across that vast landscape quickly with troop transports and tanks.This has proved easy because until the Zagros mountain range rises up to the east of Ahwaz, defending the route toward the Iranian religious center of Qom and the capital of Tehran north of it, there are no natural barriers to impede a fast-moving army's advance.
To halt Iraqi moves across this territory, the Iranians would have to rely on extensive air strikes. Despite repeated claims of such air activity by the Iranians, there remains little evidence -- such as planes in the sky or damaged equipment on the ground -- to substantiate them.
Indeed, both the Iranians and the Iraqis seem to have restricted their air forces to raiding each other's industrial targets -- especially oil facilities -- in an effort to knock each other out economically rather than militarily.