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The 'beauty' and the horror of the Iran-Iraq war

By: Mike Gallagher/BBC News, September 26, 2015

Thirty-five years ago this week,


Iraq invaded Iran and what
has been described as the 20th
Century's longest conventional
war began. Both sides suffered
terrible casualties but they had
different motives for fighting
and now, looking back, two
soldiers see their experiences
in a very different light.

How many soldiers go into battle with a smile on their face?

How many have fond memories of a war in which perhaps a million people were
killed?

Meet Mehdi Talati. Aged just 15, he took up arms after Saddam Hussein's Iraqi
forces invaded his homeland, Iran, 35 years ago.

The attack, on 22 September 1980, sparked the Iran-Iraq War, which did not end
for eight years. Saddam had promised a whirlwind victory, but he had reckoned
without the intense religious devotion of many Iranians toward their new
revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.
"We loved Imam Khomeini, and when he gave the order to defend the country, we
were happy to answer his call," says Mehdi. "All my generation went - and I think
we went with joy."

Mehdi joined the basij, a volunteer militia dedicated to upholding Iran's Islamic
revolution. Most were, like him, young and inexperienced. They were also poorly
equipped. Yet he speaks about the fight with clear delight.

"We were just young kids with Kalashnikovs and grenades - which we didn't even
dare to use at first because a lot of us were afraid to throw them! We didn't even
have bread! The logistics were terrible. But that obligation [to Khomeini] was so
strong it covered everything."

It was a different story


on the Iraqi side.

To begin with, the Iraqis


made progress,
occupying the Iranian
port of Khorramshahr.
But although Saddam
Hussein's elite
Republican Guard were
as loyal as the basijis,
many of his other troops were conscripts, and went to war with less enthusiasm. It
is perhaps significant that few of them seem to relish describing their experiences
today, and those who will talk often prefer to remain anonymous.

One of them is "Adnan", now a journalist living overseas, who was drafted into the
army in 1981.

I couldn't watch, I just heard the sound of the shots - it was very badAdnan,
former Iraqi conscript

"I was enrolled in training. It was very harsh for all the company. I remember the
trainers - holding batons. Those trainers hit you - on your head, on your shoulders,
on your chest. I felt from the beginning they are putting down the morale of the
army. Tell me, how can a soldier fight when his morale is low?"
But they did fight. It's thought that some 250,000 Iraqis could have lost their lives
in the war. And those who wouldn't engage in the slaughter of Iranians were dealt
with brutally.

"The execution You know I can't erase it from my memory," recalls Adnan.

"I was sitting with my colleagues, and there was a fuss outside! People coming,
coming, coming! And I saw two military ambulances arrive.

"I asked my colleague what was going on. He told me there are two or three soldiers
- they are preparing them to be executed. The excuse was that they had left their
position. I couldn't watch. I just heard the sound of the shots. It was very bad.
Really very bad."

Breaking off suddenly,


Adnan taps the desk
restlessly, looking far
into the distance.

"Now, when I remember,


I want to cry," he says.
"This absurd war that we
were sent to - it was an
inferno. Really, an
inferno."

It was a very elegant


moment - I would rather
die in that moment than
live after the war

In 1982, Saddam
announced a withdrawal
from the areas he had
invaded. He had spread
his forces too thinly and
the basijis' self-sacrifice helped repel them. Even so there was to be no peace for
another six years. The two sides entrenched and fought battles often reminiscent
of World War One in their futility, with massive slaughter for very small
territorial gain.

"They asked our company to go to Khorramshahr, and from our company only five
people managed to cross Shatt-al-Arab waterway bordering Iraq with Iran," says
Adnan. "The others were either killed or taken prisoner. Only five people came
back, and the officials started to re-form a new company under the same name."

The Iranians, who were usually less well equipped, suffered even more deaths than
the Iraqis. After the Islamic revolution, and the seizure of American diplomats as
hostages, the world had punished Tehran with an arms embargo. The biggest asset
its young volunteers had was their sheer number, and they advanced in surprise
"human wave" attacks - often straight into machine-gun fire from the Iraqi
trenches.

"You're getting shot at, killed. Sometimes they cannot find your body. It's in pieces.
And then you see that it's an
unequal war - all you have is
yourselves and the other side have
everything - bunkers, artillery, air
force," says Mehdi, who once
volunteered to clear a path
through a minefield by running
across it.

"When you do not have weaponry


you have to break the enemy line
with your body. Even the barbed wire -
sometimes we couldn't cut it, so we would
throw ourselves upon it with our bodies, so others could pass over us. Our
casualties went up and up. Sometimes 70, 80, 90% of our units were destroyed."

Today Mehdi lives as an academic in the West, but he still has battle scars all over
his body. His knee joints are plastic replacements, and a bullet still lodges deep
within his hand.

Over the long years of the war, the basij improved its efficiency, evolving from a
rag-tag militia into a battle-hardened force.
"The first time when I saw a grenade strike the earth I lay on the ground for several
minutes, I was so afraid," says Mehdi.

"But in time hundreds of grenades were coming - and I didn't mind. You adapt, and
get used to war. You start to recognise which bullet is passing you, and which bullet
is in front of you. You become more professional. And some basijis were really good
by the end of the war."

But by August 1988, when Ayatollah Khomeini was persuaded to accept a


UN-brokered ceasefire, the Iranian death toll was anywhere from 300,000 to one
million.

Yet for the devout basijis, death held little horror. They sincerely believed they
would become martyrs, with their sins forgiven and paradise assured in the
afterlife. And they felt that on Earth, their theological revolution, under attack from
the outside world, was also something well worth dying for.

That resolve says Mehdi, made their war not only bearable, but actually desirable.

"I think it was beautiful," he says. "It was a very elegant moment. I would rather die
in that moment than live after the war.

"It was so nice."