Asiya Haouchine

Today marks thirty-five years since the start of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted eight years, the longest conventional war of the twentieth century. The war began when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered invasions of Iran via land and air, following a tumultuous history of border disputes between the two countries. In 1975, the Algiers Agreement was created to end conflict over the Shatt al-Arab River and the oil-rich Khuzestan province. On September 17, 1980, Hussein declared:

The frequent and blatant Iranian violations of Iraqi sovereignty...have rendered the 1975 Algiers Agreement null and void... This river [Shatt al-Arab]...must have its Iraqi-Arab identity restored as it was throughout history in name and in reality with all the disposal rights emanating from full sovereignty over the river...We in no way wish to launch war against Iran.1

The disagreements over the border between Iran and Iraq were not the only reasons for Hussein to declare war. One year earlier, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the leader of Iran as a result of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the fifty-four year Pahlavi dynasty. Khomeini wanted the rest of the Arab world to experience similar revolutions and wanted to free the Iraqi people from Hussein’s dictatorship. As a secularist, Hussein did not want Khomeini’s words to ignite a revolution amongst Iraq’s Shi’a majority. Hussein hoped he would have an easy victory over what he thought was a country in a weakened state, due to the revolution. On September 22, Iraq launched a full-scale invasion.

From The Middle East and North Africa: A Political Geography by A. Drysdale and G. H. Blake.

Over one million people were left dead and countless wounds inflicted, both physical and emotional. The Correlates of War Project estimates the death toll at 500,000 Iraqis and 750,000 Iranians. Two and a half million people sought refuge from the brutal war that left many of their cities destroyed.

Iranian soldiers signal victory from Iraqi territory captured just a few miles from Basra in Fish Lake, Iraq on Jan. 27, 1987 during the Iran-Iraq war. (AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz)

Iranian soldiers praying during operation Nasser VII, northwest of the Irano-Iraqi front in August 1987 (Maher Attar/Sygma/Corbis)

Badayi-Iraq command post, with Iraqi troops on patrol, pose for a photographer with mountains in background, Jan. 24, 1981. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)

Iranian infantry assaulted by Iraqi troops armed with tanks:

Many Iranian children abandoned school and joined the fight against Iraq. In a 1988 letter to the New York Times editor, then Executive Director of Defense for Children International, Michael Jupp, wrote:

“The Friends World Committee for Consultation in London estimates that a quarter-million children bear arms in the world. Conservative estimates are that 95,000 child soldiers were killed during the Iran-Iraq war. My organization, Defense for Children International, was instrumental in caring for a number of the Iranian child prisoners of war - some as young as 11 - who were used as front-line troops, and our experience convinces us that military service has a devastating effect on children, leaving many of the survivors emotionally crippled.”

Although Iranian law prohibited the recruitment of children under the age of 16, it is reported that some as young as 11 joined the voluntary army created by Khomeini: Basij. The government has been accused of drafting children into the army, but this has never been proven. There have been many claims that children were sent out as human shields and minesweepers, in order to protect the “real” soldiers. Two Washington Post reporters, Milton Viorst and Patt Derian, wrote in a March 23, 1984 article:

“[Terrence Smith of the New York Times] saw “tens of thousands” of children roped together, in groups of 20 to prevent the faint hearted from deserting, hurl themselves on to barbed wire or march into the Iraqi minefields in the face of withering machinegun fire to clear the way for Iranian tanks.”

Three years later, a Christian Science Monitor article wrote of a young boy’s experience on the battlefield:

“Shirzad lasted about 24 hours on the battlefield. He'd been sent out ahead of his countrymen - a 12-year-old boy ordered to be a human minesweeper, setting off mines by poking them or jumping on them so that the adult soldiers behind him could advance safely.”

Shirzad did not die on the battlefield. He was taken to an Iraqi prisoner-of-war camp for children where he could play sports, watch television, and study English. He and others, according to CSM, were tools of propaganda for the Iraqis. Viorst and Derian warned, however, not “to think the Iraqis high-minded” for condemning the use of child soldiers, “they are the people using mustard gas…the Iraqis have been dropping a little mustard gas all along and nobody but the Iranians made a fuss about it…”

Photo from The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988 by Efraim Karsh

Iranian child soldier after a victory at Khorramshahr. Photo via Wikimedia.

During the eight year war, Iraq and Iran both utilized modes of warfare brought to the world in 1945, the year marking the end of World War II. Ballistic-missile attacks, the use of chemical weapons, and aircraft missiles, mines, helicopters, shore-launched missiles, and gunboats were used to attack cities and oil tankers in both countries. It was the extensive use of chemical weapons (mainly by Iraq), which truly made the war horrific. Though both countries had funds from oil exports, Iraq was supported by two wealthy Arab nations, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This allowed them to obtain more advanced weaponry and strategize with the supporter countries. An LA Times article from 2007 details a chemical strike purposely led against a civilian target. In 1987, “Saddam Hussein’s warplanes unleashed a poisonous rain of chemical weapons, killing as many as 113 civilians and injuring thousands more.” Chemical weapons were banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but the Iranian’s protests fell on deaf ears.

Iranian troops with equipment against chemical weapon attacks parade in front of the official stand at Tehran on September21, during ceremonies commemorating the war between Iran and Iraq. (AFP Photo)

Despite Iraq’s more advanced weaponry and dirty tactics, neither side was able to win the war. In 1982, Hussein called for a cease-fire after Iran captured much of their territory. Iran refused the cease-fire because they wanted Hussein to relinquish power and war damages repaid. Iraq rejected the demands and Iran launched Operation Ramadan on July 13, an invasion into Iraq to conquer the port city, Basra. Over 80,000 soldiers were killed and 200,000 wounded. Many disastrous offensives followed, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives from both countries.

Image via The Baghdad Observer from 17th of June 1988, page 4

In August 1988, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 619, effectively ending the war and returning the parties to the Algiers Agreement. The Council established the United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group for a period of six months in order to monitor the ceasefire between the countries. Iraq was left with a large military and sever debt, financial problems, and labor shortages while Iran was left devastated.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein waves to cheering crowds during a visit to the holy Muslim shrines in Samara on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 1988. The Iraqi President visited the site for prayers and thanks following the agreement on a ceasefire in the 8-year-old Iran-Iraq war. (AP Photo)

Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini during an audience with high-ranking Iranian officials and members of the Foreign Diplomatic Corps, in Tehran, June 1985. (AP Photo)

End notes:

1. Farrokh, Kaveh. Iran at War: 1500–1988. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.

Feature Image: An Iranian soldier wearing a gas mask during the Iran-Iraq War. Photo via Business Insider.

Asiya Haouchine is an intern at Warscapes. She is an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut.