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Iran Admits Retreat from Majnoon, Claims Iraq Used Chemical Weapons

June 25, 1988

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) _ Iraq said Saturday its forces recaptured two islands in its southern Howeizah marshes, held by Iran since 1984, and inflicted the third defeat in nine weeks on its foe in the Persian Gulf war.

Tehran Radio, monitored in Nicosia, claimed the Iraqis used chemical weapons to push enemy troops off the islands, one of Iran’s only footholds on Iraqi soil. The islands are mud and sand mounds linked by causeways and floating bridges.

A communique read over Baghdad Radio said the Majnoon islands, about 270 miles southeast of Baghdad near the Iranian border, were under Iraqi control by noon after a few hours of fighting.

Iran admitted that its troops withdrew to ″new defensive positions″ in the face of an assault by ″massive Iraqi forces.″ The Iranians stopped short of conceding the loss of the islands.

The wording of the reports was similar to when the Iraqis recaptured the southern Faw Peninsula on April 18 and drove the Iranians out of their hard- won bridgehead at Salamcheh, near the southern city of Basra, on May 25.

If the Iranians were pushed out of Majnoon, their only hold in Iraq would be in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan mountains. But by all accounts, the Iraqis have been active in attacking that area in recent days.

Iran occupied the Manjoon area, part of the 1,000-square-mile Howeizah marshes, in 1984. The Iraqis have about 50 oil wells there, but these were capped early in the nearly 8-year-old war.

The official Iraqi News Agency, monitored in Cyprus, said Iraqi warplanes and helicopter gunships flew hundreds of combat missions on Saturday in support of the attack on Majnoon. The agency said the offensive was launched before dawn.

It said the air strikes inflicted heavy troop and armor losses while destroying Iranian field headquarters and two anti-aircraft missile batteries.

The report quoted military communiques as saying fighter-bombers also hit the Hamid military base east of the battle zone and knocked out a bridge in the same area to prevent the Iranians from sending in reinforcements.

Iraqi infantry units, supported by tanks, cut an embankment linking the islands with the Iranians reinforcements, which were advancing, the agency reported.

The report said Iraqi troops attacked the islands from the north and south. It said hundreds of Iranian corpses were floating in the marshes as the Iranians retreated.

Tehran Radio said the islands were defended mainly by the Badr Division, a unit of dissident Iraqi Shiite Moslem rebels opposed to the Baghdad regime and armed by Iran.

But reliable Western military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqis had 2,000 tanks and 600 artillery pieces for Saturday’s offensive. The Iranians, they said, only had about 60 tanks and a handful of artillery guns.

Baghdad Radio said jubilant Iraqis marked the victory by firing a 21-gun salute in the capital and with nationwide celebrations.

The Iraqis’ aggressive offensives have marked a dramatic switch in strategy - until April, they have fought the war only from behind their formidable Soviet-style defense lines.

An Iraqi diplomatic source in London told The Associated Press by telephone last week that an assault on Majnoon was imminent.

″When we take Majnoon we’ll have more or less recaptured all the land taken by the Iranians. Then we’ll be able to negotiate with them as equals,″ said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Iraqis have said for two years they were prepared to negotiate an end to the war that neither side appeared capable of winning outright. But Tehran has vowed to fight until Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose army invaded Iran in September 1980 after border skirmishes, is toppled.

Update hourly