First Battle of al-Faw
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The First Battle of al-Faw (Operation Dawn 8) fought from 9 February – 20 March 1986 (with heavy combat operations lasting until early 1988), was a battle of the Iran–Iraq War. The Iranians launched a sophisticated, carefully planned amphibious attack across the Shatt al-Arab (Arvand Rud) river against the Iraqi troops (mostly Iraqi Popular Army) defending the strategic al-Faw Peninsula, which connects Iraq to the Persian Gulf, capturing the tip of the peninsula, including Iraq's main air control and warning center (which was covering Persian Gulf). The Iranians defeated several Iraqi Republican Guard's counter-offensives and managed to remain in to their foothold. Iraq extensively used chemical weapons during the battle.
A blow to the Iraqi government prestige, it sent a psychological shock wave throughout the region, primarily in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iraq started to extensively improve the defenses of the major city of Basra, which was now under threat.
The Iran–Iraq War had been fought for nearly 6 years. While the Iranians had driven the Iraqis off of their soil in 1982, Iranian efforts to invade Iraq and cause the downfall of the regime of Saddam Hussein had been fruitless. Iran (which had the 5th most powerful military in the world prior to the Islamic Revolution) had suffered due to a lack of spare parts and in its inability to replace lost equipment, and relied heavily on human wave attacks and light infantry warfare. Meanwhile, the Iraqis (especially after 1982) were heavily supported by foreign nations, many whom did not want to see an Iranian victory. The war bogged down into a stalemate.
In the face of increasing Iraqi armament and manpower, as well as increasing problems on their own side, Iran could no longer rely on outnumbering Iraqi troops. While the infantry and human wave assaults would remain key to their attacks throughout the war, Iran began to rely more heavily on infiltration and surprise attacks, as a part of limited light infantry warfare . In contrast to Iraq's static defences and heavy armour, Iran began training troops in infiltration, patrolling, night-fighting, marsh warfare, and mountain warfare. They also began training thousands of Revolutionary Guard commandos in amphibious warfare, as southern Iraq is marshy and filled with wetlands. Iran used speedboats to cross the marshes and rivers in southern Iraq and landed troops on the opposing banks, where they would dig and set up pontoon bridges across the rivers and wetlands to allow heavy troops and supplies to cross. Transport helicopters were used as well, ferrying troops to the battlefield. Iran largely focused on infiltrating through areas that were difficult for Iraqi armour, air power, and artillery to be used, such as valleys, the marshes of southern Iraq, and the mountains of northern Iraq.
Iran began to plan for a major offensive. While deceptively making it seem like the attack was to be against the southern Iraqi city of al-Basra (like most of Iran's attacks had been), the attack was really aimed at the southern al-Faw peninsula, touching the Persian Gulf, and the only area of Iraq that touched the open ocean.
The operation was planned by Iran's army chief of staff and the Iranian defense minister. It was planned entirely by professional military officers, but the battlefield commanders were a mix of army and Revolutionary Guards. The Iraqis were taken by surprise, as they had not expected the Iranians to be able to land troops on the peninsula. The Iranians hoped to cut off Iraq from the Persian Gulf, making the country landlocked, and threaten Basra from the south. More importantly, Iran hoped to deliver a series of blows against Iraq that would lead to its downfall via attrition warfare. The operation was to be called Operation Valfajr 8 (Dawn 8)
On 9 February 1986, the Iranians launched Operation Dawn 8, in which 100,000 troops comprising five Army divisions and 50,000 men from the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij advanced in a two-pronged offensive into southern Iraq. Unlike the earlier offensives, Dawn 8 was planned entirely by professional Army officers, all of whom had begun their careers under the Shah.
The first phase of the Iranian attack was a feint attack, carried out in the vicinity of Basra (around al-Qurnah) from 9–14 February, attempting to split Iraq's 3rd and 7th Corps. Iran's northern forces launched human wave attacks, while the southern forces launched an armored attack against the enemy. Both attacks were stopped with heavy Iraqi firepower, and the Iranians suffered 4,000 casualties. However, the Iraqis became convinced that this was the main point of attack, and diverted their forces to that sector.
Instead, Iran's primary objective was Iraq's al-Faw peninsula, the only area in Iraq that touched the Persian Gulf. The First Battle of al-Faw began when the Iranians launched a two-pronged amphibious attack against the southern foot of the peninsula on the night of 10–11 February. The attack was carried out at night and during poor weather to reduce the Iraqi's advantage in armor. The first Iranian attack used frogmen against Umm al-Rasas island in the Shatt Al-Arab across from Khorramshahr as a stepping stone to reach the Al-Faw peninsula. They captured the island, but an Iraqi counterattack recaptured it three days later.
Iran's second simultaneous attack was aimed at the foot of the peninsula. Using a division size strike force of the Revolutionary Guard's amphibious forces on small boats and large LST boats, they landed at six points on the peninsula, after an intense artillery and air bombardment. The Iranians were well supported by artillery and air power during this attack. Iranian forces drove north along the peninsula almost unopposed, capturing it after only 24 hours of fighting.:240The resistance, consisting of several thousand poorly trained soldiers of the Iraqi Popular Army, fled or were defeated, taking 4,000 casualties and 1,500 becoming prisoners of war. The Iranian strike force overran the tip of the peninsula, in 24 hours, and while most of the frontline Iraqis fled, the town of Al-Faw held out until 14 February. The Iraqis had not expected an Iranian attack at this area, assuming that the Iranians were incapable of launching a major amphibious operation.
Due to being taken by surprise, and poor weather, the Iraqis were unable to launch a major counterattack, but began to fight back as early as 12 February. Iran quickly in the meantime set up pontoon bridges across the Shatt al-Arab, and rapidly moved 20,000 troops from the Basij, Pasdaran, and Regular Army onto the peninsula. To avoid detection by American satellites and Iraqi warplanes, the components of the bridges were welded together underwater during the night. Afterwards, oxygen tanks were strapped to the sides of the bridge, causing it to rise to the surface. Afterwards they dug in and set up defenses.
As early as 12 February 1986, the Iraqis began a counter-offensive to retake al-Faw. However, Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi high command still were convinced that the main Iranian attack was towards Basra, and did not take word of the Iranian capture of al-Faw seriously. There were only two mechanized divisions moved to attack the Iranians at Faw. But soon the Iraqi leadership realized the deception and began to plan accordingly. On 13–14 February, the Iraqis organized a hastily planned counterattack. But it was largely a mechanized counterattack with little light infantry, in an area with thick mud and little room to maneuver, and Iraqi air and artillery attacks were muffled against the muddy terrain. The Iraqis were thus bound to two roads, and they were picked off by Iranian artillery, AH-1 Cobra helicopters and anti-tank commando units. In desperation, Iraqi aircraft flew as many as 300 combat sorties against the Iranians, but with few targets (the Iranians forces consisted of dug in infantry, moving only at night and helped by poor weather) they achieved little effect and lost 15–30 aircraft against Iranian air defense (using Hawk missiles) for their efforts.
Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi counterattack failed after a week of heavy fighting.
On 24 February 1986, Saddam sent one of his best commanders, General Maher Abd al-Rashid, and the Republican Guard to begin a new offensive to recapture al-Faw. The force consisted of Iraq's V Corps, with two mechanized divisions. Nevertheless, even the elite of Iraqi troops, while fighting ferociously, used poor tactics and relied on trying to evict the Iranians through sheer brute force. Iraq fired over 600 rounds of ammunition and launched 200 sorties of aircraft every single day, using both high explosive and large quantities of chemical weapons. Their most widely used chemical weapon was mustard gas, which paralyzed Iranian activity on the battlefield, and killed 700–1,800 immediately. 8,000 were stricken, and many more would eventually die afterward. The poison gas may have been the deadliest weapon for the Iraqis fighting the Iranians.
Thus a new round of heavy fighting took place. The Iraqi offensives were supported by helicopter gunships, hundreds of tanks, and a large bombing offensive by the Iraqi Air Force.:242 The Iraqis desperately launched head on attacks against the Iranians, who were well armed with anti-tank weapons and made short work of the attackers. The Iraqis were forced to stick to the main roads and rely on their armor for firepower, and even in dryer areas were unable to maneuver. Often, the tanks and infantry failed to cooperate, and the tanks attacked without infantry support, taking massive losses. Iraq's infantry also took heavy losses against the more experienced Iranian infantrymen, who were experienced in night warfare. Iraq was losing whole battalions against the Iranians. Iraqi artillery was ineffective in the marshes, and as Iranian air defenses dispersed and shot down Iraqi observation aircraft, and the shells that landed were muffled in the mud. Iraq used so much ammunition that they faced shortages, and had to scour international markets and place orders from their supports in order to replenish their stocks. They lost another 25 aircraft to Iranian interceptor aircraft (such as the F-14 Tomcat) and air defenses. The only effective weapon Iraq used against the Iranians was poison gas, and even that was dampened somewhat by the muddy ground on the peninsula.
To make matters worse for the Iraqis, on 4 March, they suffered another heavy blow when two Iranian F-5E Tiger II's bombed the headquarters of Iraq's 5th Mechanized Division, killing the general and his entire staff.  Iraq attempted to launch a clumsy amphibious attack against the rear of the Iranians, which cost them several more battalions. Iraq had taken such massive losses that they were forced to resort to ordering citizens to donate blood, trying to recruit foreign staff and tourists in hotels, and using city taxis to transport the dead and wounded to morgues and hospitals in Iraq. Facing heavy air losses against the Iranians over Faw, the Iraqi Air Force launched bombing attacks on Iranian civilian and industrial targets as a form of counterattack (see War of the Cities). Iraqi aircraft did have one notable success on the peninsula though. Iranian helicopters had transported some of their own armor to the peninsula. One of Iran's armored columns was hit by Iraqi aircraft, damaging several M-60 tanks and M-113 armored personnel carriers.
Iraq's desperate attempts to retake al-Faw again ended in failure, costing them many tanks and aircraft: their 15th Mechanised Division was almost completely wiped out. The capture of al-Faw and the failure of the Iraqi counter-offensives were blows to the Ba'ath regime's prestige, and led the Gulf countries to fear that Iran might win the war. Kuwait in particular felt menaced with Iranian troops only 16 km (9.9 mi) away, and increased its support of Iraq accordingly.:241
Iraq launched another counterattack on 10 March, which was unsuccessful. On March 1986, the Iranians tried to follow up their success by attempting to take Umm Qasr, which would have severed Iraq from the Gulf and placed Iranian troops on the border with Kuwait. However, the offensive failed due to Iranian shortages of armor. Thus as a result, fighting on the peninsula stabilized, and became a stalemate.
Aftermath and impact
The First Battle of al-Faw "officially" ended in March, however heavy combat operations continued on the peninsula until the end of 1986 and even as late as 1988, with neither side being able to displace the other. The battle bogged down into a World War I-style stalemate in the marshes of the peninsula. 17,000 Iraqi troops and 30,000 Iranian troops fell victim on the peninsula. On 3 September, Iran launched Operation Karbala 3 against two Iraqi oil platforms around Umm Qasr and Kuwait's Bubiyan Island, the latter of which hosted Iraqi troops. If successful, early warning radar sites on the platform would be destroyed. Iranian amphibious commandos and Revolutionary Guards landed on the first platform (al-Amayeh), defeating the Iraqi troops while Iranian artillery destroyed the second (al-Bakr). Iraq then launched air attacks and drove the Iranians off the al-Amayeh platform.
The occupation of al-Faw placed the city Basra at risk of being attacked, rumors of a final Iranian offensive against Basra proliferated. To help defend itself, Iraq had built impressive fortifications and Iraq devoted particular attention to the southern city of Basra. It built concrete-roofed bunkers, tank- and artillery-firing positions, minefields, and stretches of barbed wire, all shielded by an artificially flooded lake 30 kilometers long and 1,800 meters wide.
The Iranians put their foothold in the Al Faw peninsula to good use. They used the peninsula as a launch pad for Silkworm missiles which were deployed against shipping and oil terminals in the Persian Gulf, and also against Kuwait, which supported Iraq throughout the war. It gave them a chokehold on any goods and supplies coming up the Shatt al Arab and Khawr Abd Allah waterway for Iraq.
Order of Battle
- Karbala Headquarters
- 25th Karbala Special Division
- Commanded by Morteza Ghorbani
- 27th Mohammad Rasulullah Division
- 7th Vali-e-Asr Division
- Commanded by Mohammad Raoofi-Nezhad
- 41st Sarallah Division
- Commanded by Qassem Soleimani
- 31st Ashura Division
- Commanded by Amin Shari'ati
- 5th Nasr Division
- 8th Najaf Ashraf Division
- Commanded by Ahmad Kazemi
- 14th Imam Hossein Division
- Commanded by Hossein Kharrazi
- 17th Ali ibn Abi Taleb Division
- Commanded by Gholamreza Jaafari
- 32nd Ansar-ol-Hossayn Independent Brigade
- 15th Imam Hassan Independent Brigade
- 44th Qamar-e Bani-Hashem Independent Brigade
- 25th Karbala Special Division
- Nooh Headquarters
- 19th Fajr Division
- 33rd Al-Mahdi Independent Brigade
- Commanded by Jaafar Asadi
- 33 artillery battalions of Islamic Republic of Iran Army Ground Forces
- Yunes 1 Headquarters
- Kowsar Flotilla of Islamic Republic of Iran Navy
- Yunes 2 Headquarters
(belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy)
- Raad Headquarters
(air support and air defence; belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force)
- Shahid Soleiman Khater Headquarters
(air assault, medevac, heliborne and transportation; belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran Army Aviation)
- Qods Headquarters (diversionary operations)
- Najaf Headquarters (diversionary operations)
- Jihad of Construction from Khorasan, Fars, Isfahan, and Khuzestan provinces
- 414, 29, 702, 704, 442, 502, 111, 110, 104, 47, 501, 419, 48, 39, 22, 23, 2, 602, 603, 703, 96, 95, 108, 421, 424, and 5th Infantry Brigades
- 440th, 441st, 443rd Coastal Infantry Brigades
- 30, 16, 34, 42, 26th Armored Brigades, 17th Tammuz, al-Rafidin, Dhu al-Noorain Tank Battalions, 43rd Battalion of 5th Division
- 25, 20, 15, 8 and 24th Mechznized Brigades
- 65th, 66th, and 68th Special Forces Brigade
- Republican Guard
- 1st Mechanized Brigade
- 2nd Commando Brigade
- 3rd Special Forces Brigade
- 4th Mechanized Brigade
- 10th Armored Brigade
- 1 commando battalion
- Commando units:
- Popular Army
- 6 qati's under command of 26th Division
- Iraqi Navy
- Iraqi Air Force
- Iraqi Army Air Corps
- Woods, Kevin M. (2011). Iraqi Perspectives Project: A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam's Senior Leadership (PDF). 4850 Mark Center Drive, Alexandria, Virginia: Institute for Defense Analyses. ISBN 0-9762550-1-4.
- Weapons of Mass Destruction: Chemical and biological weapons. ABC-CLIO. 2005. p. 165. ISBN 9781851094905.