A day at the Iran-Iraq front. Guides explain strategy, say prayers, serve tea

It's 5:45 a.m. The sun is rising over the Hawizeh marshes and the warm wind rustles the reeds. A group of Iranian fighters says morning prayers on the roof of a bunker. Hawizeh is a huge stretch of flat marshes through which the international border between Iran and Iraq runs.

Our tiny group of Western correspondents had left the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz at 3:30 that morning and driven south on the main road that leads to Abadan. We later headed west, passing positions abandoned by the Iraqi Army in 1982 when it was driven out of Iran. Since then both countries have been fighting for control of the Hawizeh area.

The edge of the marsh is passable by vehicles but after a few miles the swamp becomes so deep that we have to board small motorboats to go any farther.

As this reporter's boat advances along a narrow waterway, the pilot announces that we are entering Iraqi territory. After a 90-minute ride we arrive at our destination, a position near the Iranian front.

We follow a spokesman from the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Guidance as he leads us 18 miles into Iraqi territory. The rumbling of the cannonade is deafening. The Iranian artillery is just behind us and in the sky we see the flares of Soviet-made Katyusha rockets. The Iraqi artillery doesn't seem to be very active.

``It's normal,'' the boat's pilot says. ``We shell them in the morning when we have the sun in the back and can clearly see their positions. They start shelling us after 12 noon when the sun dazzles us.''

Then we enter an area that was taken over by the Iranians only a few hours earlier during an operation code-named ``Qods 5'' (Qods is the Persian and Arabic name of Jerusalem). The pilot carefully maneuvers his boat between the sea mines that have not yet been cleared. He is rather nervous and his forehead is covered with sweat. We eventually reach a tiny man-made island on top of which stands a bunker made of sandbags.

Until a few hours ago this island was held by the Iraqis.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard who welcomes our group of journalists explains that he and his comrades have thus far been very busy repelling Iraqi counteroffensives and have not had the time to clear the battlefield of dead bodies. Another fighter shows me crates of ammunition that were left behind by the Iraqis and that bear the stamps of the Saudi Arabian and the Jordanian armies. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are Iraq's closest allies.

``It was 11 p.m. We rowed up to the island and caught them by surprise,'' explains Ahmed, a young Revolutionary Guard. ``We killed 40 of them and made 20 others prisoners.''

What was the strategic aim of the attack?

``We are taking the marshland bit by bit,'' Ahmed responds.

``Our next target will be the road that leads to the Iraqi town of Al Beida and through which the Iraqis bring supplies to their troops in the marshland. Our final aim is to take the Baghdad-Basra highway that runs on the Iraqi bank of the swamp.''

Iranian fighters have on at least two occasions reached the Baghdad-Basra highway, but have never been able to hold their positions. The Iranian Army recently changed its tactics, deciding to proceed step by step and avoid launching large, quick offensives. In the past, similar offensives had always been repelled by the Iraqi Army.

As Ahmed talks we come under gunfire from an Iraqi position. We all fall on our knees while the Iranians fire off a dozen mortar rounds. After a few minutes the fighting dies down and we return behind the front lines where a group of Iranian fighters offers us breakfast. The scene is almost surreal. We're sitting on a carpet spread out on a floating pontoon. In the Iranian tradition a man serves hot tea.

There are no regular soldiers in that sector of the front. All the fighters sitting here are volunteers and come from the central town of Yazd. Part of their food comes directly from their native city and is brought to their positions by friends or relatives.

Mullahs from Yazd are here, too. Very few fighters wear helmets and some of them are barefoot. When one sees the incredibly lightly-equipped Army, one wonders how it has been able to repel the Iraqis from its homeland and occupy pockets of Iraqi territory.

``Faith in God is our driving force,'' a mullah explains. And, he adds, ``This is a fight between the believers and the infidels.''

A very excited fighter claims that Baghdad will only be a step on his way to capturing the holy city of Jerusalem.

While we talk, a boatful of wounded Iranian fighters passes by. My interpreters refuse to give any figure of Iranian losses during their recent offensives.

Western analysts estimate that, in the five years since the war began in 1980, both sides have suffered casualties nearing 1 million each.

As we leave their floating headquarters the Revolutionary Guards start shouting ``Death to America, death to USSR, death to Israel.''

A few hundred yards away we are shown a group of 20 Iraqi prisoners who were captured a few hours ago. A mullah who speaks Arabic is already giving them Koranic courses and they have been taught Arabic translation of Iranian revolutionary slogans.

All the prisoners, in the presence of their Iranian captors, say that they have been forced to go to the front by the Iraqi government. Some seem to be sincere but others appear frightened. One of them with tears in his eyes tells me his only wish is to see the war over.

``I want to return to my country to see my mother and my father,'' the prisoner says.

It's getting unbearably hot and our Iranian guides announce that the fighting is becoming very heavy. We had better return to Ahvaz.

On the way back we drive alongside dozens of military barracks in which tens of thousands of volunteers and regular soldiers wait to be dispatched to the battlefield.

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