Iran Hears Echoes of a 'Sacred' War

A decade of brutal conflict with Iraq shaped Iran's relations with other Islamic states, and West.

Among the most devout Muslim believers, every communication begins: "In the name of God...."

And so it was that Ali Zakani began to tell of the spiritual and ideological import of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s - a conflict that for some Iranians sparked a revolutionary zeal and a commitment to Islam that has only increased over time.

This brutal war - in which 1 million on both sides were killed or wounded - provided a spiritual reckoning for Iran that reveals some of the deepest roots of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"We didn't enter the battlefield to become martyrs, only to defend Islam and the revolution," says the bearded Dr. Zakani. "But we knew that if we died, we were going to be martyrs, and that was important to us," he says. "So we would have victory either way."

Today that experience affects every aspect of Iranian politics, from the current tension with the extreme-Islamist Taliban militia in Afghanistan to Iran's announcement last week that it would not pursue a decade-old religious decree requiring the death of Salman Rushdie, British author of the controversial book "The Satanic Verses," for blasphemy.

Zakani is a senior Basiji official - the group's name means "volunteer" - at Tehran University. His office is, significantly, in the campus mosque. He joined the war at the age of 15 after Iraq invaded Iran and fought throughout - his years at the front molding a strong ideology.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution that ousted the pro-West Shah Muhammad Pahlavi, declared the fight against Iraq a "sacred defense" and a jihad, or holy war.

But the spiritual sense with which tens of thousands marched to the front line was not shared by all, and the division here today between "true believers" like Zakani and moderate Iranians is deep.

Basiji and Hizbollahi organizations - which, because of their particular sacrifices in the war, often serve as the self-appointed moral authority - are tasked with "defending" the revolution against all, mostly Western, threats.

Containing moderates

But they can also strike fear into the hearts of moderate Iranians, whom hard-liners accuse of tampering with the aims of the revolution. The most obvious symbol of these moderates is reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami, who was elected by a landslide last year.

Militant Hizbollahis attacked his information minister and a vice president during a public rally last month, and shut down a pro-Khatami newspaper. For many hard-liners, Mr. Khatami's efforts to reopen Iran to the West and create a "civil society" based on law and order are seen to undermine the rule of conservative clergy.

But Zakani, a medical doctor specializing in pediatrics, speaks in conciliatory tones about the divide.

"It is natural that not everyone thinks the same way. We are convinced people are for the revolution, but at the same time some are Westernized and have different views," he says. "But we try to attract them to us. We as fundamentalists believe we should make the rest aware, we should give them guidance; talk to them.

"We don't consider this [liberal] minority a threat, but our response is to make sure it doesn't expand," Zakani says. "The institutions of the revolution are so strong, and this mandate has been given to us by the war."

More than defending a border

It was this war that had an almost indescribable effect on those who survived, who were often there for ideology as much as for duty to country. Zakani says he was wounded 10 times and took part in 15 major offensives.

For him, a "chain" of anti-revolution attacks against Iran, all spurred by Western enemies, climaxed with Iraq's invasion in 1980. But from Tehran's point of view, "fighting was more than just defending the border," Zakani says.

"I knew it even then, that this revolution brought us self-respect, self-understanding," he adds. "It gave us the gift of freedom, and that was reason enough to see the war through."

Key to his decision to fight was the personal charisma of Khomeini, known then as the "Imam of the Age" who in the Shia theology was God's representative on earth.

"Giving us this feeling to fight was one of the miracle arts of Imam Khomeini - he inspired people to religion," Zakani remembers. Iran's vast martyrs' cemetery south of Tehran is adjacent to the elaborate shrine that has entombed Ayatollah Khomeini since his death in 1989.

"A lot of dust built up on Islam over the centuries," says Zakani. "The imam shook off the dust and showed the realities of this religion to find the real Islam."

For some, disillusionment

Not all war veterans still adhere so powerfully to this ideology. Some were disillusioned by their war experience, while others seem confused by the wide social rift between those who fought and those others - most often wealthy residents of north Tehran who had the means to flee - who skipped out on the dangerous war.

But for Zakani, the "sacred defense" provided a paradigm for daily action and deep loyalty to the revolution.

"The most important thing we learned in the war was sacrifice: Don't just live for yourself, but for others," he says. "We're trying to transfer these feelings and beliefs to the next generation, because for us the war is not over. The oppressors are always after us."

A moment of epiphany for Zakani occurred one night on the southern front, in the marshy border area, when Iranian frogmen directed his boat with flashlights to an Iraqi position on an island.

Hours of hand-to-hand combat ensued. After a meal and prayers of thanks, a rustle of reeds revealed more than 20 Iraqi soldiers waving white shirts of surrender. Zakani and his unit tended to the Iraqi wounded, he says, and shared with them some of their own "good bread," made from milk and wheat.

"One [Iraqi] soldier got so emotional. 'Now I know what is Islam,' he said, and then went back to the marsh to retrieve more and more surrendering Iraqis," Zakani recalls.

"They were crying: 'Now I know where is Islam, and which side is atheism.' "

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