National Mobilization for Defense: Basij and New Balance

  December 15, 2021   Read time 2 min
National Mobilization for Defense: Basij and New Balance
With the start of the war the home guard was reconstituted into the basij (mobilization of the oppressed). The basij was directed by the Revolutionary Guard.

Islamic Republic had used the winter standdown of the Iraqi troops to carry out a countrywide mobilization. Actually, the main lines of this had been set in the autumn of 1979, when Imam Khomeini ordered a call-up of “20 million” Iranians to confront the anticipated reaction of the United States to the hostage crisis. The original call-up had been organized by mosques, each mosque supplying twenty-two men. The twenty-two-man teams were armed and given two weeks of rudimentary military training, after which they formed the nation’s home guard, guarding villages in the countryside and policing neighborhoods in the larger cities.

With the start of the war the home guard was reconstituted into the basij (mobilization of the oppressed). The basij was directed by the Revolutionary Guard. With the irregular forces and the regular army, Iran was able somewhat to offset Iraq’s original huge advantage in troops—whereas at the beginning of the fighting Iraq outnumbered the Iranians five to one, by early 1981 that advantage had been reduced to around two to one.

We now want to introduce the topic of “people’s war,” as pioneered by the Iranians, with the focus on innovative tactics that were developed. We will devote some space to these because they are essential to understanding why the Iraqis ultimately fell apart. Essentially the tactics involved three major departures. Most important, Iran ceased to fight a mainly mechanized war. Its commanders had determined that Iran was no match for the Iraqis in the area of conventional warfare. At the same time, however, it had an immense manpower pool to draw upon (Iran’s population outnumbers Iraq’s three to one). Thus, the commanders innovated the human wave attack.

The human wave has been largely misconstrued both by the popular media in the West and by many scholars. The Iranians did not merely assemble masses of individuals, point them at the enemy, and order a charge. The waves were made up of the twenty-two-man squads mentioned above. Each squad was assigned a specific objective. In battle, they would surge forward to accomplish their missions, and thus they gave the impression of a human wave pouring against the enemy lines.

Along with this, the Iranians reshaped their strategy to feature night attacks, seeking to offset Iraq’s advantage in air power. Iran had been caught badly off guard when the war began, with large numbers of its aircraft virtually inoperable. Attrition from war losses caused further slippage. A year into the war the Iranians were having to cannibalize their planes to assemble a bare minimum of airworthy craft.

And, finally, Iran began to concentrate its attacks on Iraq’s Popular Army units. The Iranians had determined that here was where the Iraqis were most vulnerable. Baghdad in the early stages of the war placed great confidence in its Popular Army units, comprised of cadres drawn from the Ba’th Party. The Ba’th leadership evidently felt that these party loyalists would be dependable, whereas the predominantly Shia units would not be. This did not, however, work out in practice. The Popular Army men, not being professional soldiers but civilians co-opted to perform military functions, were prone to crack under pressure.

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