Across the river, world's largest oil refinery lies in smoldering ruins
Siba, southern Iraq — Across the swift-flowing river from here, the ruins of the largest oil refinery in the world still smolder, and a pall of smoke hangs everywhere for miles around.
The Abadan refinery, once Iran's special pride, was first set ablaze Sept. 23 , one of the earliest casualties of the continuing battles between Iraq and Iran.
Periodically, its ruins spawn yet another explosion, as one of the few remaining structures reaches combustion point.
And now there are fears that the whole of this simmering southern sector of the battlefront could explode again in a new and potentially more damaging escalation of the fighting. The 350-meter-wide river between here and Abadan is the Shatt al Arab (River of the Arabs), a much-disputed waterway that Iraq now claims wholly as its own.
On the western bank of the Shatt, directly opposite the ruins of the Abadan refinery, Iraqi infantrymen keep watch on activity across the river from their network of foxholes and trenches dug into shady gardens.
There had not been much activity, they reported, on the recent day when this correspondent visited them. But at night the Iranian guns from across the river behind the refinery started hitting the Iraqi position. Iraqi troopers said they then fired back "in self-defense."
But they proudly showed us their American-built 106- millimeter recoilless rifle mounted on a large jeep, and shortly after took a thunderous potshot with it into the gaunt ruins opposite.
Generally speaking, that was a quiet day on the southern front in the two-week- long war between Iraq and Iran.
At his headquarters back about a mile from the riverside front line, the volubly friendly infantry captain considered things were "going well."
We ate lunch with him there, served by khaki-clad, pistol-toting girl volunteers. "We have right on our side, so we're bound to win," the captain said, as he skillfully dodged questions about actual military dispositions.
The situation, as I could ascertain it, was that the Iraqis had virtually surrounded Abadan and nearby Khorramshahr, cutting off at least one of the roads linking them with Ahvaz to the north.
But the Iraqis had not yet actually penetrated into the two key riverside cities. They were prevented by the reportedly fanatical resistance of Iranian troops and irregulars defending them, as well as by a reluctance to cause excessive harm to the cities' considerable ethnic Arab populations.
Politically, contacts between the two belligerents continue, through the Islamic Conference's goodwill mission to both sides and through the Iraqi foreign minister's current contacts at the United Nations in New York.
But most Iraqis doubt if the Khomeini regime in Iran will respond to such contacts, and the new bellicosity of Iranian leaders is understood here to be the prelude to Iranian attempts to counterattack along this southern sector.
The Iraqis, too, are making their preparations, apparently concentrating on strengthening the southern front.
Certainly the mountainous northern sector northeast of the capital, Baghdad, appeared calm by the beginning of October. And even then there was evidence that the Iraqis, having successfully taken three Iranian towns in that sector, were pulling troops back to the south.
Then in the evening of Oct. 2, I saw a two-mile convoy of heavy Iraqi military vehicles churning south toward this southern sector from Baghdad: well over 100 vehicles, including tanks on carriers and large ungainly rockets.
One Western expert on the relative strengths of the two combatants estimated in Baghdad that the Iraqis could capture Khorramshahr and Abadan relatively easily in another round of fighting. Some Iraqi sources, however, indicate that their main concern is the strategic Iranian city of Dezful further north.
Whenever the main thrusts and counterthrusts are planned, it seems clear that this glinting strip of water in front of us, running as it does through some of the most valuable real estate in the world, has not yet had its fate finally decided.