The Gulf conflict -- through the eyes of the warring parties

The fighting that has raged around this booming southern port city appears to have slackened off for now, although it is not yet evident for how long. From here, the Iraqi Army launched the many-pronged offensives that took it to the fringes of the key Iranian oil cities of Abadan, Khorramshahr, Ahvaz, and Dezful.

In the process, Basra itself took quite a beating from Iranian planes and artillery. A petrochemical project near the city received almost a direct hit, and many burned-out cars litter the city's spacious main boulevards.

Detachments of the ubiquitous civil defense and national militia are posted by night at every street corner, rigidly enforcing a total blackout that leaves drivers groping at snail's pace for the road.

But for the last couple of days, despite the periodic wailing of the air-raid sirens, there have been few attacks. The Iraqis, for their part, appear to have let up on their previously relentless push into Iranian territory.

This slackening reflects what already was evident at the other active sector of confrontation between the two oil states -- the area north of Baghdad, where fighting effectively stopped around Sept. 27.

In the south, Iraqi troops are poised around four Iranian cities (Abadan, Khorramshahr, Ahvaz, and Dezful), threatening a last push that could decisively alter the fortunes not only of the two key parties to the conflict, but also the whole regional balance of power.

The Iraqis' 240,000-strong armed forces still appear to have plenty of punch in reserve.

As we traveled from Baghdad by road through Kut and Nasiriyah, for example, there was plenty of evidence of Iraqi reserves. Vast sprawling Army camps lined the road at half a dozen points, with tanks, air defense systems, and other mobile systems dug into desert areas sparsely covered with thorn bushes.

At one point, hundreds of brand new Army trucks had been parked haphazardly in a sprawling makeshift camp, well deployed to minimize the effects of air strikes.

At an Army camp farther north, a column of smoke hung over oil tanks hit earlier that day That fire resembled the blaze in Baghdad Sept. 30, when the Iranian Air Force hit the oil storage tanks of one of the capital's power stations.

By such actions, the Iranians have showed they are not yet finally out of the war, though they, too, have suffered punishing damage to oil installations.

Throughout Iraq, meanwhile, a reasonably efficient system of distributing vital goods appears to continue, and there are signs that the tight civil organization built by the Baath Party rulers of Iraq is coping well with the current emergency.

International experts report that the national medical network has done well. Some obstetric units in hospitals have been disbanded in favor of dispatching emergency units to perform home deliveries, one says.

Cooperation between the hospital and firefighting services, the civil defense , militia, and police was shown in their reaction to the Baghdad fire, which left at least 11 civilians dead.

But despite the buoyancy of the Iraqis, there are new signs of problems affecting their military effort. For example, the offensive in the south apparently has not been as successful as was claimed or hoped for.

And in the longer term, there must be some question over how long the country can obtain the credit needed to continue its vast development effort at a time its oil installations are producing only a relative dribble of oil.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is playing for high stakes in his current game with Iran. But these presumably are the questions he now is discussing with his inner core of fellow Baathist advisers.

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