AL FAW, Iraq: Leaving this Iraqi border town and heading toward the tip of the country’s south-eastern peninsula that juts into the Arabian Gulf, it feels like time was frozen the moment the war between Iran and Iraq ended three decades ago.
The road passes through a narrow, labyrinthine stretch of land next to Shatt Al-Arab, the waterway that separates the two countries.
Either side are dozens of sprawling palm groves, but as you reach Ras Al-Bisha, the last Iraqi border point, the greenery is replaced by the charcoaled trunks of thousands of trees incinerated during one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II.
Monday marks 30 years since a UN-sponsored cease-fire brought an end to the longest conflict of the 20th century, which saw waves of conscripts sent to their deaths and Saddam Hussein unleashing chemical weapons against his enemy in industrial quantities. Estimates of the death toll for the eight years of bloodshed vary between 400,000 and more than a million.
In Al-Faw, the memories that haunt the population are exacerbated by the fact that little has been done to revive the area from the horrors that unfolded there.
Nothing suggests the town, where one of the most fierce and brutal battles of the war laid the cornerstone for the cease-fire agreement, has seen any development or reconstruction since the end of the conflict in 1988. And yet Al-Faw’s strategic location means it should be a crucial hub for the security and economy of the country and the Gulf region.
A handful of damaged government buildings and houses are scattered here and there. A large multifaceted building, which once served as the local hospital, carries Arabic and Persian writing on its heavily damaged walls.
“These lands are dead because of the explosive materials and the unexploded shells that are still here,” an Iraqi border police officer told Arab News as he pointed to the fields of burned trees.
He said Iraqi forces had cleared some areas of munitions “but did not completely lift all remnants of the war.”
“There are still tens of thousands of unexploded shells and mines covered by a layer of mud. Sometimes we find five or more shells in one square meter.”
Al-Faw, the name given to both the town and the triangular peninsula sandwiched between Kuwait and Iran, sits 100km southeast of the southern oil hub, Basra.
Before the war, it was one of the most important towns in the country, hosting energy projects, giant oil depots, a port and platforms to export oil. It was once famous for its dense palm plantations and henna farms, and unique style of buildings.
None of this remains.
Ras Al-Bisha, is the last point of the land where the Shatt Al-Arab reaches the Gulf. It served as a maritime gateway for Iraq to export oil and supervise the entry of ships and boats.
When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in September 1980, Al-Faw was one of the first Iraqi cities to be bombed by Iranian artillery. In some areas the town is less than 400 meters from the Iranian side of the waterway.
“It was within the range of the Iranian artillery so we were bombed daily,” Walid Mohammed Al-Sharifie, the mayor of Al-Faw, told Arab News.
“A few months later, the Iraqi army forced people to leave the town as it turned into a front line.”
On Sept. 17, 1980, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared his non-compliance with the Algiers agreement, which he had signed in 1975, to demarcate the border between the two countries along the Shatt Al-Arab.
Five days later, Iraq launched a massive air strike targeting air bases, airports and military facilities inside Iran. The next day, the Iranians launched a counter-attack on vital sites in Baghdad and many other provinces.
The two sides spent the first six years of the war in hit-and-run operations that mostly targeted border towns and villages. They gained the odd foothold in each other’s territory but were unable to hold it for long. Although most of Iraq’s ports were shut down or destroyed because of the war, Iraq received substantial financial and logistical support from several Gulf countries, which also sold Iraqi oil on its behalf. Much of this support was reaching Iraq through the Gulf.
Controlling Al-Faw had become an urgent goal for the Iranian regime as it sought to deprive Iraq of its sole maritime gateway and force Saddam to accept its’ conditions to end the war.
As a result Iranian forces continued their intensive attacks on the Iraqi border towns along the Shatt Al-Arab. In February 1986, 30,000 Iranian troops overran Iraqi forces fortified in Al-Faw, and occupied the town, causing heavy losses.
In the following five weeks, more than, 52,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in a series of desperate offensives to retake Al-Faw.
“The Iranian attack stunned us and was not expected,” Maj. Gen. Fouad Hussein, the commander of one of the brigades that fought in southeast Iraq between 1986 and 1988, told Arab News. “They seized the town and we lost more than 1,000 troops in the first 48 hours.
“Our major losses took place during the series of attacks we launched to retake Al-Faw in the first weeks after its occupation.”
The commander said most of the casualties came from Iranian artillery shelling. Under pressure to recapture Al-Faw, large numbers of troops were pushed into the battle through a narrow corridor along the western bank of Shatt Al-Arab, as the other side was too muddy for the soldiers to move easily. The soft salt flats near Al-Faw also made it difficult to move armored vehicles into position.
Under pressure from the heavy losses, Saddam agreed to stop further attacks, commanders of the former Iraqi army told Arab News. As a result, Iran held the peninsula for more than two years.
In the meantime, Iraq started training special forces in similar terrain near Amara. They were joined by Republican Guard forces, which were the elite in the Iraqi army in terms of training and equipment.
“The biggest and most effective attack” to retake Al-Faw was secretly set for April 17, 1988.
The plan was to directing a huge barrage of fire on enemy positions “to paralyze its movement from the first moments,” Gen. Majid Al-Sari, a former artillery battalion officer who took part in the battle, told Arab News.
“In the first 45 minutes of the attack, more than 1,000 artillery and rocket launchers opened fire, targeting the Iranians’ positions.”
“Thirty minutes later, 150 tanks joined the attack, in addition to dozens of helicopters and jets.”
The Iraqi leadership said the liberation of Al-Faw did not take more than 35 hours. Commanders involved said there was no direct fighting because the intensive firepower did all the work.”
Many reports say Saddam’s forces killed hundreds of Iranian troops with chemical weapons during the offensive.
The Iraqi forces carried the momentum of the Al-Faw victory to push east and retake the rest of the land captured by Iran.
Less than four months later, the war ended and the two sides agreed to stick to the terms of the Algiers Convention. After eight years of slaughter, neither side had achieved its objectives and the border remained in the same position.
By the end of the war on Aug. 20, 1988, not much remained in the center of Al-Fawr — a mosque with a damaged minaret, a partially damaged school and a small, old and crumbling cafe on the edge of the water. The rest was completely devastated.
The Iraqi authorities did not allow people to go back to their homes in the town. They redesigned the center of Al-Faw and limited reconstruction campaign to government departments.
“We were not allowed to go back to Al-Faw until 2003 (after the US invasion), Abduladhaim Salman, a resident, told Arab News. “They told us it was still a sensitive military area and not all people were allowed to go back.
“When we came back, there was nothing around but the main streets and the governmental buildings. I could not even recognize the site of our house.”
Local officials in Al-Faw told Arab News that no more than 50,000 people out of 300,000 have come back to live in Al-Faw.
“We have found out that some (Iraqi) officials in Baghdad have no idea where our town is located. They think it is a village on the border and there is no reason to pay attention,” Abid Ali Fadhil, head of Al-Faw local council, told Arab News.
“Even the water has turned salty and the land mines have stopped the work of companies working in the field of desalination.
“So why would people come back to Al-Faw? It is a dead town.”