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The Iran - Iraq war officially broke out on September 22, 1980 when Iraqi forces launched a land and air invasion on western Iran. The war lasted almost nine years, claimed thousands of casualties and caused damages running into billions of dollars for both countries. It is regarded as the longest conventional war in modern history. The war drew in many countries, including the two superpowers then- United States and Soviet Union, whose main concerns were taking care of their interests rather than putting an end to it. At the heart of it were the long-standing border disputes between Iraq and Iran but many other factors came into play that prolonged the war and caused so much damage.

The Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran saw Ayatollah Khomeini rise to power as the supreme leader of Iran surrounded by hard-line Muslim clerics and politicians. The revolution took its toll on the new Islamic Republic and the war offered a perfect opportunity for the new political dispensation to quell domestic opposition and also rally the population behind the sacred duty of defending their motherland. The new leadership took advantage of its citizens’ patriotism to entrench itself in power at home and pursue other causes of little benefit to the general population. Saddam on his part had ambitions of becoming the leader of the Arab world and making Iraq the dominant Gulf State. Countries with vested interests were quick to take sides and provided military and financial aid to both countries to sustain the war, instead of trying to prevent the humanitarian crisis that was looming.

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By June 1982 Iran had successfully kicked the Iraqi forces out of its territory. There was a chance to end the war then. Saddam Hussein offered ceasefire but Ayatollah Khomeini continued with the war by invading Iraq. Leaders sometimes drive their people into war for personal reasons like ambition, greed or vengeance. Despite the number of casualties and the effect it was having on the economy, the leadership of Tehran continued to pursue a cause that was no longer met with the same enthusiasm by its population as it was two years earlier. Khomeini was determined to dislodge Saddam from power and remained adamant despite the heavy sacrifice that it required. By this time the two superpowers (USA and USSR) were helping Saddam and Iraq was able to kill many Iranian soldiers through airstrikes and chemical weapons. Iran relied on its large population for continuous supply of foot soldiers, while China, North Korea and Libya provided military hardware. The international community continued to fuel the conflict rather than try for a solution.

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Civilians were most affected with many killed or displaced. In the mid-eighties the two countries had resorted to a war of attrition. They destroyed each other’s infrastructure, bombed towns and civilian residences and unleashed terror on perceived foreigners. Iran expunged Iraqis living in its territory while Saddam persecuted many Shia Muslims seen to be pro-Iran. Saddam even unleashed chemical weapons on his own civilians- the Kurds in the northern region who supported Iran. During this time the international community raised little objection to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, and it only became an issue several years later when Saddam became an enemy of the west. During the peace negotiations both parties stuck to their hard-line stands and the only resolution they easily agreed on was the exchange of prisoners (Hiro 132). Iran especially wanted the war to continue and a ceasefire had to be imposed on both countries. It was clear that the leaders of both countries did not really care about the effects the war was having on their civilians.

The United Nation also failed in its mandate when it took so long to end the war. It is only after ships belonging to other countries came under increasing attack in the Persian Gulf that international pressure for UN intervention intensified. War has become big business and it seems solutions are only sought when it starts to interfere with more business, like in this case the importation of crude oil from the Gulf States to the rest of the world. In fact it is the vast reserves of oil in the Gulf region that made so many countries eager to help either side in the war with hopes of getting some oil in return. The Iranian population supported the revolution, fought in the long war with its neighbor and supported its Islamic leadership through all these. Yet the same regime has increasingly become oppressive to its citizens; cracking down on dissidents and gradually isolating its people from openly interacting with the international community. Saddam grew to become a dictator with expansionist ambitions as can be seen when he invaded Kuwait. It took a US-led invasion in 2003 to eventually dislodge him from power and liberate the Iraqi people.

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