In the pre-dawn hours along the Iraq-Iran frontier a number of small unit engagements, allegedly between Iranian and Iraqi ground units, broke out on the western side of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. By the time dawn came, forward Iraqi positions near the border were reportedly under fire from Iranian artillery batteries. A short time later, the sector commander radioed higher headquarters to inform it that chemical rounds were now exploding over his forward units. Casualties were high. It was not long before news of this supposed Iranian chemical attack arrived in Baghdad. Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein wasted no time in ordering retaliation. As the time approached 0830, the first Iraqi shells carrying VX nerve gas were being fired at Iranian positions on the opposite side of the Shatt-al-Arab.
As the morning progressed there were more exchanges of chemical weapons and battalion-sized units started clashing along the Iraq-Iran border. Concurrent to the resumption of fighting between Iran and Iraq, the governments of the two nations made their cases to their respective populations and the world. Baghdad vehemently accused Iran of nerve gas attacks on Iraqi troops near the border, a charge which Iran fiercely denied. Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini both claimed the other side could no longer be trusted and action had to be taken. By noon the ceasefire that had been in place since 9 July, 1987 was no more. Iran and Iraq were once again at war.
Unfortunately for Saddam Hussein, any sympathy he had hoped to gain from the international community never materialized. The world remained in shock from the destruction of Madrid and Gorki. The amount of death and destruction continued was still being processed and the uncertainty of what the future might hold weighed heavily in the minds of millions around the world. Suffice to say, the outbreak of chemical warfare on the Iran-Iraq border elicited minimal reaction from the international community.
The response from US Central Command was measured and immediate. As soon as news of the first exchange was received, all US combat and support units on the Arabian Peninsula readopted MOPP-4 posture. Orders were also issued from CENTCOM-Forward to the command’s air component to commence airstrikes against all known Iraqi artillery batteries within range of the 7th MAB. Central Command Air Forces commander, Lieutenant General Chuck Horner requested permission to extend the scope of his orders to include a wide search for self-propelled artillery and tactical ballistic missile units across the southern regions of Kuwait and Iraq. Saddam Hussein was known to possess a large stockpile of chemical warheads and along with artillery, also used SCUD and FROG missiles against Iranian targets earlier in the Iran-Iraq war. CINC-CENT had no qualms with this and encouraged Horner to begin as soon as possible.
Air attacks against the artillery batteries in range of the 7th MAB started within the hour. The preparations for reconnaissance missions deeper into Iraqi territory required more time. His recon assets were limited and to Horner’s frustration, bringing carrier-based aircraft into the mixture was proving to be more difficult than he had expected. Goldwater-Nichols was still new and the concept of joint operations not yet embedded in the way CENTCOM planned and fought. It took a few hours and some colorful barking on the phone by Horner but by 2000, the three TARPS-equipped F-14 Tomcats and the rest of the Constellation’s airwing was cleared to begin conducting missions for CENTAF in southern Iraq and Kuwait.
By 0000, a number of viable targets had been discovered and marked, including artillery and SCUD launchers.