- Operation Karbala-5
Operation Karbala-5 Part of Iran-Iraq War Date 8 January-26 February 1987 Location Basra, southern Iraq Result Iraqi defensive victory; Territorial
Iraq holds on to the city of al-Basra Belligerents Iraq Iran Commanders and leaders Saddam Hussein Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Hossein Kharrazi †
Strength ~180,000 650,000 Casualties and losses 20,000  65,000 ~2 million civilians displaced
Related U.S. operations in bold
Kaman 99 – Abadan – 1st Khorramshahr – Morvarid – Dezful – Undeniable Victory – 2nd Khorramshahr – Samen-ol-A'emeh – Jerusalem Way – Jerusalem – Ramadan – Before the Dawn – Dawn 1 – Dawn 2 – Dawn 3 – Dawn 4 – Dawn 5 – Dawn 6 – Marshes – Kheibar – Badr – Al-Anfal Campaign – 1st Al Faw – Dawn 8 – Karbala 4 – Karbala-5 – Karbala-6 – USS Stark Incident – Karbala Ten – Nasr 4 – Earnest Will – Prime Chance – Eager Glacier – Nimble Archer – Halabja – Zafar 7 – 2nd Al Faw – Praying Mantis – Air Flight 655 Incident – Mersad
Operation Karbala-5 was an offensive carried out by Iran in an effort to capture the Iraqi port city of Basra in early 1987. This battle, known for its extensive casualties and ferocious conditions, was the biggest battle of the war and proved to be the beginning of the end of the Iran-Iraq War.
With the Iran-Iraq War in its seventh year, both sides were determined to break the stalemate. Iran’s target was the city of Basra, which was both a key port and vital oil source for Iraq. Iran decided that the city had to fall in order for Saddam Hussein to fall as well. Iran had besieged the city since 1982, yet it remained determined to make this the ‘final battle’ of the war. The Iranians also wanted to link up with forces in the already captured Fao Peninsula in southern Iraq. The timing of the operation was to coincide with winter, so that the heavy rains would hinder the Iraqi armor and air defenses. The Iraqis, however, intended to break the stalemate by inflicting as many casualties as possible on the Iranian forces, hoping to break the morale of the Iranian people.
Making up the manpower of the Iraqi army were six conscript brigades as well as two brigades of the elite Republican Guard nearby. The Iraqis set up an artificial barrier facing Iran, using dykes and the Jasim river leading from the Shatt al Arab to create an artificial lake. Known simply as ‘Fish Lake,’ the man-made barrier was approximately 30 kilometers long and 1,800 meters wide. Soldiers described a smell of 'dead fish' since so many shells rained down on the lake. Iraqi engineers even managed to place electrodes in the waters. Further more, the Iraqis set up mine fields, a series of trenches, concrete bunkers, and barbed wire, totaling five lines of defense. By the time the defenses were complete, the Iraqis came to know the entire barrier as the 'wall of steel.'
The Iranians amassed over 650,000 Pasdaran and Basij fighters of the ‘Muhammad Corps.’ The Corps itself consisted of men between the ages of seventy all the way down to twelve. The Corps did not have as extensive training as their Iraqi counterparts did, having received from forty days of training to none at all. The Iranians also enjoyed the luxury of large scale helicopter-borne support, which included the use of Bell and Chinook helicopters. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani praised the troops heading for the front before the operation commenced:
Our aim is to completely destroy the Iraqi war machine. Here, near Basra, Saddam can not do anything but fight, for the fall of Basra is tantamount to his own death. We want to settle our accounts with Iraq at Basra's gates, which will open and pave the way for the final victory we have promised.
On Christmas Eve of 1986, Iran launched the Operation Karbala-4 under cover of dark. The battle was short lived, however, as the Iraqi defenses pummeled the Iranian forces coming ashore. Though a failure, Iran continued with further operations and mobilized the Pasdaran's most experienced officers for battle. After two weeks, Iran officially launched Operation Karbala 5.
Under the code words 'ya-Zahra,' the operation began on the mid-night hours of January 9 with Pasdaran and Basijis attacking the Iraqi defenses south of Fish Lake, effectively overrunning a battalion of Iraqi infantry. Another wave of Iranians crossed the lake by boat and landed on the western shores, where they made a desperate charge for the Shatt al-Arab river. Instead, they faced a counterattack by several brigades of the Republican Guard, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. After the southern thrust captured the poorly defended town of Duayji, the Iranians spent the days of the 9th and 10th overrunning two of the five Iraqi defense lines, reportedly using dug-in Iraqi tank turrets to shell Basra and other fortifications.
On January 14, Iraqi Border Guards found themselves nearly cut off in the third line of trenches by Iranian forces moving in on both flanks. Air and artillery attacks lacked proper effect as the marshes absorbed the impact of shells and rockets. After fierce fighting, they withdrew across the Jasim river on the 17th, giving the Iranians the cue to charge south towards the Shatt. They were successful in taking a small island in the Shatt. However, the Iraqis managed to repulse the capture of the island by moving in from the south on land. In the following days, the Iranians managed secure a bridgehead six miles inside Iraq along the shore lines.
By January 22, the Iranians were within twelve kilometers of Basra. The battle turned into a stalemate at this point. The Iraqis suddenly found themselves on the outer perimeters of Basra, whereas the Iranians were close enough to see the eastern buildings of the city. Artillery and medium range missiles created frequent and heavy bombardments. So heavy, that the Iraqi forces had to evacuate much of the civilian population to northern Iraq.
The situation had deteriorated so badly that President Saddam Hussein chose to make a rare visit to the troops. Incidentally, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was also visible on the war front, reportedly observing the gains made by Iranian forces.
However, while the Iranians had the fervor to fight, the Iraqis held the upper hand with their arsenal of armor and aircraft. They resorted to bombing Iranian supply routes with chemical weapons to thwart the reinforcement process. The Iraqis even bombed Iranian cities, including Tehran, Isfahan, and Qom as a form of counterattack. It is believed that some 3,000 Iranian civilians were killed in these attacks. Iran retaliated by firing eleven long-range missiles further into Iraqi territory, continually inflicting heavy casualties among civilians and killing at least 300.
By the fourth week of the offensive, Iran effectively held Fish Lake, the Umm al-Tawil islands, the Jasim River, and Duayji. Despite these achievements, the majority of Iranian forces were spent. Iraqi artillery and mortar fire zeroed in on Iranian re-supply routes, hindering the progress of the advancing forces. The Iranians took refuge in whatever dugouts they could afford.
The Iraqi Republican Guard took the initiative with a counterattack on January 28. Using waves of tanks, artillery, and helicopter gunships, the Iraqi Third Army Corps assaulted the Iranians on the western side of Fish Lake before turning south towards Jasim. Artillery effectively pounded Iranian re-supply and reinforcement routes. These bombardments, along with the advancing Iraqi armor into the battle zone, created a pincher movement that effectively crushed the hard-fought salient by February 7.
Iran continued its shelling of Basra for the remainder of February, at one point setting fire to a petrochemical plant which released toxic gas south of the city. But it was clear by the end of the month that Iran had officially aborted the operation.
It was reported by March that the Iraqis lost over 20,000 troops and 45 aircraft, while the Iranians lost 65,000 troops. Of the most experienced Pasdaran recruited to lead the campaign, roughly a quarter of them were killed. Basra’s former population of one million decreased to 100,000, the refugees having fled north to Baghdad. Nearly every building along the eastern end of the city was damaged or destroyed.
Though the Iraqis forced the Iranian offensive back, it was still an embarrassment due to the fact that Iran came so close to the gates of Basra. At one point, Saddam Hussein nearly faced mutiny from his generals, who demanded the freedom to conduct operations without political interference. The battle also served as a lesson for Western forces during Operation Desert Storm. With the failure of the poorly trained and equipped Iraqi Popular Army during the first assaults of the offensive, the Republican Guard did the most in repulsing the Iranians. This show of favoritism in Saddam's army would only prove futile in the future.
The effects of the operation were also felt in the Persian Gulf, with Iran and Iraq attacking foreign oil tankers doing business with both powers. A total of sixteen ships were hit in the first five weeks of 1987. Although Iran boasted that it would step up more attacks in the next year, no such actions materialized and Karbala 5 proved to be the last in a series of 'final offensives.' The war ended on July 17, 1988.
1. The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk, Knopf Books, 2005
2. The Gulf Iran Strikes on Two Fronts, by William E. Smith, TIME Magazine, Jan. 26, 1987
3. The Gulf, TIME Magazine, Feb. 2, 1987
4. The Gulf Life Among Smoldering Ruins, by Dean Fischer, TIME Magazine, March 30, 1987
5. In The Name of God: The Khomeini Decade, by Robin Wright, Simon and Schuster, 1989
6. Essential Histories: The Iran Iraq War 1980-1988, by Efraim Karsh, Osprey Publishing, 2002
7. Journey to Heading 270 Degrees, by Ahmad Dihqan and Paul Sprachman, Mazda Publishers, 2006
8. The Longest War, by Dilip Hiro, Routlage Chapman & Hall, 1991.
- Twelve images of Operation Karbala-5, Fars News Agency, Monday 17 January 2011.
- Twelve images of Operation Karbala-5, Fars News Agency, Tuesday 18 January 2011.
- Twelve images of Operation Karbala-5, Fars News Agency, Thursday 20 January 2011.
- The Official site of Holy Defiance - Iraq-Iran War 1980-88
- http://www.christusrex.org/www1/news/indep-10-4-05a.html (eye witness account)
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