''The Iranians attack without any sign of military organization, just a human wave rushing forward brandishing flags and singing the name of Allah.''
The Iraqi colonel shook his head in astonishment. For the fourth time in two weeks the Iranian command poured thousands of soldiers into the same narrow triangle of desert northeast of Basra, 150 square miles the Iraqis now call ''the death tunnel.''
In this wedge, one of the bloodiest battles since World War II is being waged. According to Western estimates, between 16,000 and 20,000 Iranians have been killed. Several thousand Iraqis have been killed and an unknown number wounded.
Many of the Iranian soldiers are children. ''They don't fire their weapons. They just sing and shout,'' said the colonel.
Perplexed, the colonel observed: ''We are fighting men we simply do not understand.''
The irrational military behavior troubling the Iraqi officer is known in Tehran as ''the logic of the revolution.'' And Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini has based his war strategy on this logic.
Observers agree that Iran was counting on a popular rebellion against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as soon as Iranian troops approached the border. The area chosen for attack, in addition to containing the country's vital supply road, is in a region where the overwhelming majority of the population is Shiite. Iraq's Shiite Muslims were thought potentially more receptive to the religious appeal of the Iranian Shiite mullah, Khomeini. But militarily the region is easily defendable. It is filled with marshes, rivers, and large forests of date palms.
''Iran hoped that their military disadvantage would be offset by the revolutionary awakening of the local population. The sight of children sent to martyrdom, brandishing flags and chanting prayers, was probably meant to whip up the religious fervor of Iraqi Shiites,'' a Western diplomatic source speculates.
The thrust of the Islamic revolution found an obstacle in its first push beyond Iran's borders. The Iraqi Army didn't crumble. It showed greater resistance and decisiveness on its own territory than it did during its invasion of Iran, and the local Shiites have not risen to welcome the ''Iranian saviors.'' The attempted swarming breakthrough, what Iran touts as ''the stroll to Baghdad,'' failed.
The atmosphere in Basra was festive as the holiday month of Ramadan came to a close. The population appeared unperturbed and the bazaar shops were crowded. Trucks with smiling soldiers raising their fingers in a ''V'' sign crossed the Haled Walid Bridge over the Shatt al Arab waterway heading toward the front about 10 miles east of the city. Some of the Iraqi troops have been moved farther north to reinforce defensive lines in the Kurd-dominated region, which was said to be another source of conflict for the Hussein regime.
Observers agree the war will be long and harsh. ''Not only because of the conflict's ideological dimension but also because Iran needs to divert attention from its 6 million unemployed and internecine battles among the mullahs,'' said a diplomatic source.
The unexpectedly strong Iraqi resistance bolstered the image of Saddam Hussein, giving him new prestige at home and abroad. The President's image had been badly tarnished by the earlier defeats in Iran.
Iraq - with its 14 million, faces Iran, a country of more than 40 million with much greater economic and military potential. President Hussein must therefore use diplomacy to compensate for these disadvantages.
The Iraqi leader tried to convince the Arab world to hold a summit, counting on the deep-rooted Arab hostility against the traditional Persian enemy. But fearing a direct confrontation with Khomeini, the Gulf countries backed off from the idea of an Arab summit. They also refused to hold joint military maneuvers with the United States. It seems easier for them to continue a sort of silent support, which has filled Iraq's coffers with more than $25 billion in the last two years.
Hussein's dependence on the Gulf states' financial support is greater than ever: Iraq's oil prodution has dropped from a prewar average of 4 million barrels a day to 700,000 barrels a day. This provides revenue of just $10 billion. That sum is enough to pay the cost of one year of the war, but it doesn't cover the high costs of Iraq's five-year development plan or the costs of the social programs essential to maintaining internal stability.
Moreover, the government is giving generous benefits to families of dead soldiers, and has greatly increased food imports to improve food supplies in southern Iraq and other areas of potential ethnic and religious conflict.
For the moment Hussein seems to be in full control. He has recently been reelected secretary-general of the Baath Party, and he has successfully carried out a large purge in the government and the top ranks of the party. The Council of the Revolution has been reduced from 13 to nine members. Eight ministers have been expelled from the government.
It is a measure of Hussein's control that he accused his opponents of inefficiency rather than treason, as in the past.
Surrounded by friends and ''yes men,'' Hussein seems sure and confident because ''changes in Iraq occur from palace conspiracy and intrigue rather than through popular revolts,'' explained a diplomatic observer.
Despite his present strength, Hussein's political future strongly depends on the fortunes of war. As long as he maintains his current military advantage, he will be able to control the domestic situation and to sustain his diplomatic initiatives.
Iraq's highest international priority is avoiding a postponement of the nonaligned summit scheduled to be held in Baghdad in the middle of September. Playing host to the conference has been Hussein's long-cherished goal because it would end Iraq's protracted international isolation and confer on him a three-year term as president of the nonaligned movement.
Many observers say Khomeini launched his attack to sabotage the conference and deprive Hussein of the legitimacy and political prestige that would come from holding the meetings. Hussein responded to the Iranian invasion by intensifying his preparations for the conference. He initiated an ongoing series of preparatory meetings with delegates from the other nonaligned countries to forestall Cuba's attempt to postpone the conference.
As a symbol of his determination, welcome banners for the delegates were hastily unfurled throughout the city, and workers worked around the clock to put the finishing touches on the conference complex, specially built to house the chiefs of state, journalists, and other visitors.
This grandiose project includes five new hotels, a sumptuous meeting hall crowned with a cupola, a web of underground streets linking the hotels to the conference hall in order to provide security for the chiefs of state, and even a leisure village containing 90 new villas on an island in the Tigris River. The scale of the project reflects the political importance that Hussein places on the conference.
But to bring attain this goal, Baghdad must remain quiet and secure - just what Khomeini doesn't want to permit.