But the day after the war started, both Iran’s navy and air force took actions that greatly expanded the conflict. On September 25 and 26, Iranian bombers attacked targets deep inside Iraq. Along with several oil refineries and the hydroelectric complex at Darbandi Khan, they damaged Iraq’s nuclear facility and raided the capital, Baghdad. Ships of Iran’s navy attacked Iraqi oil refineries at Al Faw, causing extensive damage that considerably reduced Iraq’s oil-exporting capacity.
The Iraqis committed six divisions in their initial assault, a force of roughly 70,000 men, and over 2,000 tanks.45 These were reinforced within a few weeks by three additional divisions with about 35,000 troops. The attack was launched along three major axes—one in the far north around Naft e Shahr, a second slightly farther south at Qasr e Shirin, and a third in Khuzistan. The two northernmost attacks were in effect blocking actions in which Iraqi forces took up positions at strategic passes through the Zagros Mountains in order to prevent Iranian counterthrusts toward Baghdad.
It was in Khuzistan that the main Iraqi invasion was concentrated, and here elements of five Iraqi divisions participated. Half the force moved north against Dezful and Ahvaz, and half south to Khoramshahr and Abadan. Because of the paucity of Iranian troops available to oppose the invasion, the Iraqis initially encountered relatively light resistance. Even so, the columns moved with great caution, averaging only about ten kilometers (about six miles) a day. This cautious method of attack is a feature of armies trained by the Soviet Union (the same sort of behavior was observed in the 1973 War on the Egyptian front). Nonetheless, in Iraq’s case another element dictated caution—the Iraqi commanders were under orders from Saddam not to incur heavy casualties. This was in line with the president’s strategy of keeping the war contained.
The Iraqi forces were fairly successful at first. By September 25 they had cut the road between Tehran and Dezful, thus effectively preventing reinforcements from reaching the province of Khuzistan. They also had begun the process of detaching the Shatt al Arab from Iranian territory by bringing their strength to bear against Khoramshahr and Abadan. However, the attack was not proceeding on schedule. The Ba’thists originally had calculated their campaign would be over in two weeks. At the end of that time not one of the four cities that they aimed to capture had fallen, and only one—Khoramshahr—was even partially invested.
The attack on Khoramshahr had begun at the end of September, with a thrust by a column of fifty tanks into the city’s port area, which was taken with relative ease. When the Iraqis attempted to move out of the port into the residential areas, however, they bogged down. The residential part of the city was a maze of narrow streets and alleys, an ideal setting for urban guerrilla operations. There were an estimated 7,000 regular and irregular Iranian troops inside Khoramshahr, and they put up a spirited resistance. The Iraqi commanders, mindful of Saddam’s injunction against heavy casualties, consequently held back.
In any event, the final push against Khoramshahr was further delayed when Saddam accepted a United Nations-ordered cease-fire,46 the first of a series of unilateral cease-fires observed by the Iraqis. The effect of these stoppages was to discompose Iraq’s commanders, who had to break the momentum of their attack. Further, each truce gave the Iranians time to mobilize and prepare their resistance. At the same time, the truces are evidence that Iraq did not intend more than a limited war. By repeatedly breaking off fighting, the Iraqis were signaling Tehran that the war could be concluded through negotiation.