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The Iran-Iraq War Was a Special Kind of Hell (A Million Dead?)

Warfare History Network

Key Point: Possibly as many as 1 million people were slain and 1.5 million wounded; another 2 million became refugees.

The world awoke to ominous news on September 22, 1980. Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein had launched a massive armored and air attack across the Iraq-Iran border. Believing that his Islamic fundamentalist neighbor to the east had been weakened by the ongoing revolutionary turmoil that in February 1979 had toppled the Shah, Hussein was confident that his forces would win a lightning victory and restore long-disputed territory to Iraqi control. Such a victory, not incidentally, would put Hussein at the forefront of a resurgent Middle Eastern pan-Arabism.

Among the causes of the war—the ruthless ambition of Saddam Hussein; ongoing disputes over control of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, a shipping lane formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that created the southern borders of both countries; the struggle for dominance in the Persian Gulf region—the overriding issue was a centuries-old dispute regarding sovereignty over oil-rich Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran. Khuzestan was the ancient home of the empire of Elam, an independent, non-Semitic, non-Indo-European-speaking kingdom whose territory spanned almost all of present-day southwestern Iran. Khuzestan had been attacked and occupied many times by various Arab kingdoms of Mesopotamia, the precursors of modern-day Iraq.

A Centuries-Old Rivalry

The rivalry between Mesopotamia and Persia had lasted for centuries. Before the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was part of Persia. This changed when Murad IV annexed Iraq from the weakening Safavids of Persia in 1638, making it the easternmost province of the Ottoman Empire. Border disputes between Persia and the Ottomans persisted. Between 1555 and 1918 Persia and the Ottomans signed 18 different treaties delineating their disputed borders.

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