Karbala-5 Was Iran’s Bloodiest Battle

But Tehran’s generals credited God—not their giant howitzers—for the victory

Karbala-5 Was Iran’s Bloodiest Battle Karbala-5 Was Iran’s Bloodiest Battle
During the middle of the Iran-Iraq War—one of the 20th century’s deadliest conflicts—Baghdad acquired state-of-the-art weapons from East and West. In terms of modern... Karbala-5 Was Iran’s Bloodiest Battle

During the middle of the Iran-Iraq War—one of the 20th century’s deadliest conflicts—Baghdad acquired state-of-the-art weapons from East and West. In terms of modern firepower, Iraq had a clear advantage.

To make up for this difference, Iran relied on huge amounts of older heavy weapons—and counted on loyal generals to deploy wave after wave of infantry in frontal assaults. Tehran’s commanders also parroted state-religious propaganda that emphasized spiritual reasons for their victories.

Ghassem Soleymani—today the head of the Quds Force and Iran’s top agent in Syria and Iraq—was one of those commanders.

In 1986, Soleymani sent thousands of ground troops into a killing field, and eventually succeeded in gaining some ground. The battle—called Operation Karbala-5—was the biggest of the war.

But when he later recalled the battle, the general didn’t accurately describe the artillery and rockets that supported his assault. After all, God—not guns—made success possible, right?

During the 1980s war, Iraq had a definitive advantage in modern, high-tech weapons.

Baghdad fielded Mirage F1 fighter jets to counter Iranian F-14s. The Iraqis used Milan anti-tank missiles to destroy Iranian tanks. Iraqi PC-6 turboprop trainers shot down low-flying Iranian helicopters. And Iraq fielded thousands of T-72 tanks against Iranian soldiers’ flimsy RPG-7s.

Arms sanctions meant that Tehran couldn’t buy weapons from Washington or Moscow. Nor did Iran particularly want to. Relying too openly on outside weapons would be an admission that the religious-inspired, revolutionary Islamic Republic wasn’t capable of defending itself.

At top—Iranian artillery during the Iran-Iraq War. Photo via Iranian Internet. Above—Ghassem Soleymani, third from right. Office of the Iranian Supremer Leader photo

In 1986, Soleymani was the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ 48th Division during the “Karbala” offensives. His objective—seize the southern Iraqi port city of Basra.

Between Basra and Soleymani’s division, the Iraqis had constructed a series of maddeningly complex fortifications. Taking Basra would be an enormous operational and tactical challenge.

The Iraqis first excavated a shallow depression and filled it with barbed wire, napalm barrels and mines to slow down Iranian infantry. The depression channeled attackers toward Iraqi positions, arranged in equilateral triangles.

Along each leg of the triangles, the Iraqis built a berm 250 meters in length. Baghdad’s troops placed two T-72 tanks and one ZSU-23–4 anti-aircraft cannon inside each triangle. Lacking vehicles, Soleymani’s men had to charge these Iraqi forts on foot.

The first attempt to capture the Iraqi positions, Operation Karbala-4, failed disastrously in December 1986. Iraqi troops compromised the operation with a spoiling attack—pre-emptively shelling Iranian assembly points.

The Iranians charged anyway, and the Iraqi troops fell back. Before the Iranians could stabilize their new positions, the Iraqis bombarded them with artillery and counterattacked. After 36 hours and 12,000 Iranian dead, Tehran called off the operation.

For the next operation, failure was not an option, especially for an army that claimed God’s special favor.

Iran assembled 578,000 soldiers, five times more than the number mobilized for Karbala-4. Just two weeks later, Iranian troops charged into the Iraqi positions again.

This offensive—known as Karbala-5—caught the Iraqis by surprise. The battle raged for 50 days in mud and sand. Iran failed to capture Basra, but did take and hold some territory. Between 86,000 and 100,000 Iranian soldiers died during the two offensives.

In a rare interview for an Iranian documentary, Soleymani recounted a crucial moment of the operation.

“It was a difficult day,” Soleymani said. “On the third day, Iraqis brought up everything they had—Katyusha artillery and tanks. Their helicopters flanked us and shot directly into our channels from behind us.”

“They launched a massive counter-attack,” he continued. “At two or three p.m., our lines started to fall—they had captured parts of our lines. [Divisional commander] Morteza Ghorbani started to write his will … we thought we were done.”

Iranian soldiers in Khuzestan during the Iran-Iraq War. Sajed/Wikimedia photo

But the most interesting part of the interview was when Soleymani described the balance of weaponry between the two sides. “[Iraqi Gen.] Adnan Kheyrallah was responsible for taking back the channel from us,” Soleymani said. “He was the best commander they had, according to our evaluations.”

“He had 300 pieces of artillery and tens of Katyushas, while me and Morteza combined had fewer than 20 pieces, without [proper] ammunition. He had 500 tanks on the battlefield, while we had only two.”

“In a report to Saddam, Kheyrallah wrote, ‘I put so much pressure on the Iranians that they had to crawl on their noses’—and it was true,” Soleymani said.

But Soleymani didn’t reveal his true arsenal.

At the beginning of the war, Iran possessed 1,029 advanced artillery pieces. Most of these came from the U.S. before the revolution. Iran had a smaller number of D-30 and other Soviet-made guns. Tehran acquired additional artillery pieces and rocket launchers from its allies.

North Korea exported artillery to Iran, including the monstrous 170-millimeter Koksan howitzer with a 60-kilometer range. Tehran also purchased 240-millimeter and 333-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers from Pyongyang. These rockets have a range between 42 and 75 kilometers, and are capable of delivering up to 250 kilograms of high explosives or anti-tank cluster munitions.

To be sure, Iraqi troops were much better-armed. But that doesn’t mean that Iran lacked heavy weaponry during the battles for Basra. And it’s likely that more than 20 artillery pieces supported Soleymani’s frontal assaults.

During the battle, Iran dedicated 24 artillery battalions—not including mortars and multiple-rocket launchers—according to a 2008 study of Karbala-5. Gen. Yaghoob Zodhi, an Iranian artillery commander during the war, authored the study.

According to the study, each battalion consisted of eight to 10 artillery pieces. Around 179 of these guns specifically supported IRGC divisions during the battle—which included Soleymani’s division—and Zodhi praised the artillery’s performance in helping turn the tide.

Steel and gunpowder, not divine favor, made the modest victory possible—along with tens of thousands of Iranian dead. But Soleymani failed to mention these guns and rockets in his interview.

The reason is because Soleymani is one of the most loyal Iranian generals—and loyal generals downplay materialistic reasons for victory. The regime’s myth holds that God is responsible.

Soleymani isn’t alone in promoting state-religious propaganda. “In operation Karbala-5, we truly saw the blessing of God,” Iranian Gen. Ali Akbarnejad recounted. “At one point, our ammunition was running out. I looked for our logistic chief, Mirza Ali—he’d been shot.”

“At this time, I saw Haj Qassem [Soleymani] arrive with a 250-cc motorcycle,” Akbarnejad continued. “I asked for his bike and took Mirza to the back of the line. When I returned, other brothers said to me that the enemy was shooting everything it had at us, but we didn’t get a scratch.”

“When you look at this from a materialistic point of view, with their laser-guided tanks and artillery, it wasn’t possible to not get shot,” Akbarnejad said. “But from spiritual point of view, God is above all of them … this operation was a blessing of God.”

Tehran’s generals believe they are blessed—or at least claim to. As they describe it, Iran can stand athwart Hell without any weapon but faith. But don’t mention the artillery.