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Operation Karbala-4
Part of Iran-Iraq War
Date25 December 1986-27 December 1986
LocationSouthern Iraq
Result Iraqi victory
 Iraq  Iran
Commanders and leaders

Iraq Saddam Hussein

Iraq Major General Khalil al-Dhouri

Iran Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Iran Hossein Kharrazi
Unknown 60,000
Casualties and losses
~5,000 10,000

Operation Karbala-4 was an Iranian offensive in the Iran-Iraq War on the southern front. The operation was launced after the failure of Operation Karbala-2 and Operation Karbala-3 to move the Iraqi lines in an effort to capture Iraqi territory.


The battle itself was planned and eventually executed by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The operation would be launched under cover of darkness in order to gain a foothold along the Arvand Rūd/Shatt-al-Arab waterway. Once across, the Iranian forces would go on the offensive and eventually move onto the port city of Basra. The attack would be launched towards the Umm al-Rasas Island in the Shatt al Arab. It most likely was meant as a diversionary attack before the upcoming Operation Karbala-5 (although it may have been called that only after it failed). It would attack from Umm al Rasas island to other islands and roads to help create a broad encirclement of Basra. It may have been rushed ahead to intimidate the Islamic Summit Conference meeting in then Iraqi ally Kuwait.

The Iraqis had constructed heavy static fortifications around the city. They built 5 defensive rings, supported by natural waterways such as the Shatt-al-Arab, and manmade ones, such as Fish Lake and the Jasim River, along with manmade earth barriers. Fish Lake was filled with mines, underwater barbed wire, electrodes and various sensors. In addition, behind each waterway and defensive line was radar-guided artillery, ground attack aircraft, and combat helicopters; all capable of firing poison gas in addition to conventional munitions.[12] Iran's strategy was to penetrate through these massive defensive lines, and encircle Basra, cutting off the city as well as the Al-Faw peninsula from the rest of Iraq. While being the largest and most sophisticated attack since 1984, it was actually a part of Iran's attritional stategy, in order to strike an unsustainable blow against Iraq, as the Iranians had little hope of a decisive victory in the face of Iraq's massive rearmament. There were hopes that it could bring about Iraq's downfall through sheer depletion. [75] Iran's plan was for a diversionary attack near Basra (Karbala-4), the main offensive(Karbala-5), and another diversionary attack using Iranian armor in the north to have Iraqi heavy armor diverted away from Basra (Karbala-6).[12] For these battles, Iran had re-expanded their military by recruiting many new Basij and Pasdaran volunteers.

The Iranian forces consisted mostly of Pasdaran and Basij volunteers of the 'Hussein Corps' from Isfahan. The Corps itself consisted of men and boys between the ages of seventy down to twelve. The Corps did not have the luxury of training like their Iraqi counterparts did, having received anywhere between forty days training to no training whatsoever. Iran had also trained close to 1,000,000 female Basijis as well, although they did not take part in the battles, but in combat support.

The battle

The operation began during Christmas night of 1986 with elite frogmen of the Pasdaran crossing the lake in rubber speedboats to launch a surprise attack upon Umm al-Rasas Island. Upon landing, Iraqi searchlight operators found the frogmen. The Iranians were now totally exposed. Iraqi machine gunners opened up with a hail of bullets, killing all but a few of the Iranian force.

The following morning, 60,000 Pasdaran and Basijis crossed the Shatt al-Arab north and south of Khorramshahr in dinghies and motorized seacraft, using the cover of dawn to hide their movements. Almost immediately, the Iranians met the Iraqi defenses waiting for them on the shorelines of the island. A major drawback for the Iranians came in the form of little to no artillery support against the Iraqis. However the Iranians quickly overran Umm al-Rasas and the other islands, and they crossed them using pontoon bridges. But when they tried to move up the Shatt highway to envelop Basra from the south, they came under withering Iraqi fire.

A major drawback for the Iranians came in the form of little to no regular military support against the Iraqis once they broke out of the islands, except for limited artillery support, all of it was placed on the Iranian side of the Shatt al Arab. Fighting lasted for three days, during which the Iranian forces were pummeled the by Iraqi defenses . Iraqi troops used artillery, aircraft, and machine guns firing from prepared defenses. Iranian troops died by the thousands, their bodies littered the ground, but Iraqi troops also took considerable casualties. Iraqi casualties were only half that of Iranian losses. by the time the Iranians retreated, thousands of dead Iranian soldiers covered the landscape. Iran had lost 10,000 troops, while Iraq had lost 5,000. While Iran gained a little territory, it was in all respects a horrfying defeat.


The battle killed over 10,000 Iranians and 5,000 Iraqis in those three days alone. However, this battle proved to be the beginning of a major offensive of which would last until February. The operation had been poorly planned, and doubtlessly rushed due to the Kuwait conference. The Iranians (with the exception of the night attack and the amphibious crossings) did not use their innovative tactics and mainly used human waves. The more sophisticated Operation Karbala-5 would be launched two weeks later and would eventually become the largest battle of the whole war.


1. Essential Histories: The Iran Iraq War 1980-1988, by Efraim Karsh, Osprey Publishing, 2002

2. In The Name of God: The Khomeini Decade, by Robin Wright, Simon and Schuster, 1989

3. In The Rose Garden Of The Martyrs: A Memoir Of Iran, by Christopher de Bellaigue, HarperCollins, 2005





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