Khorramshahr Diary

Stephen Sackur

The view from the roof of the Governor’s office in Khorramshahr was uninterrupted. The city appeared to possess no other building with two storeys intact. Over the road, beyond the sentries with their improbable starched white uniforms, a gaggle of municipal workers were labouring in the midday heat – some planting shrubs in a patch of soil by the side of the road, others building a children’s climbing frame amongst a clump of palms. A slide and a swing were already in position on a square of rough grass, and from my vantage-point I could hear the chatter of half a dozen children carried on the breeze.

Khorramshahr offered few other signs of life. Beyond this pocket of municipal endeavour buildings lay crumpled and sagging. A grey pallor seemed to hang over the town which somehow took away the glare of the sun. The warm wind carried with it the dust of bricks and concrete long exposed to the elements. On all sides there was evidence of indiscriminate destruction. A metal spiral staircase was still visible in the midst of a ruined house; walls had been left standing in meaningless isolation, bereft of their companions. There were holes in the road blasted by artillery shells, and countless pock-marks in the masonry. Everywhere, piles of rubble – bricks, of course, but also fragments of cars and of barely identifiable domestic appliances left to rot in the sun.

I walked for half a mile across this dead city, past the wildly-skewed telegraph poles and a couple of old women selling cigarettes and gum, until I reached a patch of empty ground. I looked down and saw intricately-patterned ceramic tiles covered in dust. Just to my left was a hole in the floor. 1 was, I realised, standing in someone’s bathroom – the hole was for the shower. Similar signs could be found on the neighbouring plots. A row of houses had been razed to the ground, leaving nothing but these tell-tale marks on the floor. I was reminded of a recent visit to the site of an English village abandoned in the Middle Ages, its inhabitants struck down by a plague.

‘Nobody lives in Khorramshahr – it is a city of ghosts, finished for ever,’ said an Iranian acquaintance in Tehran. He had given an unconscious frown when I told him of my destination. For him, and for many other Iranians, Khorramshahr will always be associated with the eight years of war with Iraq.

When the city was lost to Saddam Hussein’s forces in November 1980, the shock was felt throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran. Reports of the brutality of the Iraqi attack, which began with an artillery barrage on the still-populated city, and ended with fierce hand-to-hand fighting amidst the ruins, roused a new kind of fervour amongst the Iranian population. Hundreds of thousands responded to Ayatollah Khomeini’s plea for volunteers to defend the Islamic revolution. For eighteen months Iran focused much of its military attention on the campaign to recapture the city and the surrounding marshland to the east of the Shatt al Arab channel. It was here that Iranian commanders first deployed their ‘human wave attacks’ against the Iraqis’ dug-in positions. Thousands of Revolutionary Guards, armed with shoulder-held rocket-launchers were thrown at the enemy lines in waves some five hundred yards apart. Many were cut down long before they could use their weapons. During the spring of 1982 tens of thousands of Iranians lost their lives – only to become, according to the Iranian clergy, ‘martyrs’ assured of spiritual reward. Eye-witnesses spoke of mullahs riding through the lines of Iranian troops on motorbikes exhorting them to ever greater sacrifice. Some of the soldiers were said to have arrived at the front carrying their own coffins as a sign of their readiness for death. And at home radio and television broadcasts constantly reminded Iranians of the words of the Prophet Mohammad: ‘Wish death and welcome after-life.’

The liberation of Khorramshahr in May 1982 did not bring with it repopulation. The city was used as a springboard for an Iranian offensive across the Shatt al Arab river – a strategy which cost hundreds of thousands of lives and produced nothing but prolonged and pointless stalemate. The mudflats beyond Khorramshahr still bear all the scars of that wretched campaign. Huge earthworks, twenty feet high, run across the baked earth, rolls of razor wire lie in front of the trenches, and all around are metal rods pointing to the sky, designed, I was told, to deter any thought of a parachute landing. For more than a decade this border land has been a militarised zone, a grotesque playground for the Iranian Army. But now, new life has been established amongst the barbed wire, the gutted tanks and the ruined buildings. Thousands of Iraqi Shiites who crossed the Shatt al Arab in search of sanctuary after the failure of the southern uprising against Saddam Hussein, at the end of the Gulf War, are living in impromptu refugee camps amid the detritus of previous battles.

Unlike the Kurds, the Shia have nowhere to hide in their own country. The marshland between Khorramshahr and Basra offers scant cover from Iraqi Army patrols. In early March, when Saddam’s forces were driven out of Basra and the other main towns of southern Iraq, Shia families took the opportunity to head for Iran, but now barely a hundred refugees arrive at the border checkpoint each day. For every new arrival there are many others who have perished in the marshes that surround the Shatt al Arab river. It is difficult to persuade the newcomers to talk of their ordeal. One woman broke down in tears when I began to ask questions about her escape. Others merely stared straight ahead, unwilling or unable to unburden themselves to a Western reporter. However, one young man did overcome his fear. ‘I want to give you a message,’ he said. ‘You must tell President Bush to help us ... Saddam Hussein is killing our people. We need your help or we will all die.’ Hundreds of thousands of people had left Basra, he told me. The Army was rounding up all those suspected of collaborating with the Shia fighters who took control of the city after the rout of Iraqi forces in Kuwait. ‘Hundreds of young men have been arrested and taken to Baghdad,’ he said. ‘I myself know that eight young men were taken to a police station and shot. The bodies were left in the open as a warning to everyone.’

Some of the longer-term residents of the Red Crescent camps established on the Iranian side of the border are openly resentful. ‘Why have we been abandoned by the world?’ one woman asked me. ‘We fought with the Kurds, we are killed like the Kurds, why do you forget us?’ The heat has already made life under canvas close to intolerable. Many refugee families have moved out of the camps into abandoned buildings in Khorramshahr itself. I found two families, one cow and half a dozen goats living amidst the ruins of a warehouse on the outskirts of the city – their presence betrayed by a string of washing visible through a gaping hole in the wall.

Most of the refugees say that they will never return to an Iraq ruled by Saddam. They talk of the signs which Iraqi soldiers put on their tanks as they crushed the March rebellion: ‘No Shia after today.’ But some of the younger men in the camps insist that the struggle against Saddam will go on. I was told about dozens of fighters who continue to cross back into Iraq at night to carry out hit-and-run raids on Iraqi Army positions. Their weapons, they say, are hidden in the marshes on the Iraqi side of the border – they have no need of arms from Iran, or from anybody else. When I asked about the attitude of Iranian soldiers to the returning guerrillas, my informants were less forthcoming. ‘We have no problem,’ one said.

What is Iran‘s attitude to the Shia rebels in southern Iraq? Did the Iranians see in the March uprising a golden opportunity to export their Islamic revolution? Certainly in Baghdad the Ba’ath propaganda machine was quick to identify an Iranian hand behind the southern rebellion. When Western reporters in Iraq were taken to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to survey the damage caused during the suppression of the rebellion, they were shown weapons and ammunition allegedly from Iran. Yes, said Government officials, the rebellion did attract the support of tens of thousands of local people in the first few days, but the key organisers, the hard core of fighters, were infiltrators from Iran.

Saddam Hussein’s lackeys, in none too subtle a fashion, began to use an association of words very familiar in the West. First, we had ‘Shiite’, then we were given ‘Iran’, and what was the result? ‘TERRORISM’, of course. Western correspondents were taken to a hospital in a northern suburb of Basra to hear Iraqi medical staff talk about the brutality of the rebels. ‘They came with machine-guns and hand-grenades,’ one said, ‘and they wore green headbands. Some were Iranians with beards.’ Another added: ‘They took the cars first, then the fridges, the air-conditioners and documents. They made the doctors work on, but we had to take in their wounded men as well. ’

The Western allies who had liberated Kuwait found it all too easy to identify with this negative picture of fanatical Shiites operating under orders from Tehran. Removing Saddam from Kuwait was one thing; allowing the ‘mad mullahs’ to overthrow the Ba’athi regime, quite another. Memories in Washington and London were cast back to the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. Not only did Ayatollah Khomeini make consistent revolutionary appeals to his co-religionists in Iraq, but the Iranian Government also provided conspicuous support and comfort for exiled Shiites committed to the creation of an Islamic republic in Iraq.

Throughout the Eighties Hojatalislam (now Ayatollah) Mohammad Bakr Hakim figured prominently in Iranian attempts to sow these seeds of revolution. The Hakim clan is one of the most prominent Shiite dynasties in Iraq, based in the holy city of Najaf. Bakr Hakim spent years imprisoned in Iraq before fleeing to Iran in 1980. From there he watched as Saddam continued to persecute his family. In 1983 90 members of the clan were arrested; by 1985, 16 Hakims had been executed, including at least three of his brothers Bakr Hakim returned to Iraq very briefly in 1982, in an attempt to persuade the southern Shia to join forces with the Iranian Army. He failed miserably. Bakr Hakim is a learned cleric, not a guerrilla leader: his sermons are impressive, his fighting abilities are not. He still lives in Tehran, in a substantial suburban apartment lined with pictures of his family. He keeps with him a large retinue, amongst whom the talk is in Arabic, not Farsi. As befits an Ayatollah, he has a substantial dark beard and an even darker turban, but he lacks the humourless gravity that characterised Khomeini. Indeed, during my audience with ‘His eminence’ (as I was ordered to call him), there were frequent smiles, and an almost ever-present twinkle in his eye.

It was from the Ayatollah that the world first learned about the Shia rebellion in Iraq. Not only did Bakr Hakim provide a constant stream of information about the progress of the revolt in Basra and elsewhere: he was also able to provide the television networks with video pictures of the devastated cities.

Given his past activities, and given the extent of his contacts with the Shia rebels, it was perhaps inevitable that he came to be seen as a pivotal figure in the rebellion – the stooge behind whom the Iranian leadership lurked. But the truth, according to the Ayatollah himself, was somewhat different. Yes, he was in daily contact with the rebels in Iraq, and yes, they were being given all possible support from Shiite exiles abroad, but no, there had been no organised attempt to topple Saddam. The uprising was, he said, spontaneous, it involved all the people of Iraq. It should not be viewed as an expression of sectarian feeling in either north or south. ‘We want to see genuine democracy in Iraq,’ he told me. ‘We want a government which guarantees the cultural and political freedom and the human rights of all the Iraqi people regardless of their religion, nationality or sect.’ The United States, the Ayatollah went on, betrayed its own principles by ‘standing idly by’ and allowing the uprising to be crushed. There were, he said, ‘misunderstandings and misconceptions’ which still coloured the Western view of Islam and Iran. He would like to see an Islamic government in Baghdad, but only if that was the wish of the Iraqi people as a whole. ‘The West must lose its fear.’

But what precisely is the West frightened of? Nobody who has visited the squalid refugee camps around Khorramshahr, or talked at length to Ayatollah Bakr Hakim, could possibly believe in an Iranian conspiracy to undermine Saddam. The Iranians are not giving the Shia refugees weapons, they’re not even giving them much food. Had the rebels in Iraq been sponsored by Iran, the uprising would not have been extinguished so quickly, nor so thoroughly. The truth is that officials in Tehran have done little to call attention to the suffering of their Shiite brothers in Iraq.

Iran is no longer serious about the business of exporting the Islamic revolution. President Rafsanjani and his fellow pragmatists in Tehran know that much more can be gained by careful diplomacy – exploiting the turmoil that has engulfed the Arab world. From time to time the old anti-American rhetoric is dusted off, but much more time is spent cultivating new ties with old enemies such as Saudi Arabia Down that road, as President Rafsanjani well knows, are the real economic advantages for Iran. Moreover, the Iran-Iraq war proved beyond doubt that the Shia of Iraq were not prepared to take their lead from Tehran. When Iranian forces crossed the Iraqi border and threatened to overrun Basra, the Shiites fought with Saddam Hussein.

Why was the Bush Administration so shaken by the news that Shiites were behind the southern rebellion? Psychology must have played a part – Americans are deeply scarred by their experience with the ‘loony Ayatollah’, as by what happened with the ‘geeks’ of the Vietcong. But perhaps Bush and other Western leaders also found it useful, indeed necessary, to voice suspicion about the Shia rebellion and the Iranian connection. However unlikely the prospect of an Islamic revolution in Baghdad, it did at least provide some justification for their failure to extend any help at all to the rebellious population of southern Iraq. In Iraqi Kurdistan the Western allies could find no similar political excuses to prop up the amorality of non-intervention The transparent duplicity of their policy provoked a depth of public anger which could not be ignored: ‘humanitarian assistance’ was duly despatched. In the south, though, such strength of feeling was never mobilised. The Shiites have been left to their fate, betrayed by the whiff of ‘fundamentalism’ and an out dated fear of men with beards and turbans.