The ground is still soft along the new causeway Iraqi forces are hastily building across a wide water channel to this wasteland of marsh grass, barbed wire, and earthen bunkers. Soviet-built tanks, dump trucks, cranes, and troop transports in some places sink two feet into the mire while inching toward Majnoon, site of Iraq's newest frontline positions in the nearly 8-year-old war with Iran.
The Iraqis have been working day and night to build defensive fortifications after recapturing Majnoon - a 15 square-mile section of marshy islands north of Basra - in a battle that began at 3:45 a.m. last Saturday.
It was Iraq's latest success in a string of war-front victories in the past three months that have pushed Iranian troops back across the southern border and given Iraq a new sense of momentum. [Iraq yesterday claimed another victory in a land offensive in the north and said warplanes had bombed Iran's biggest gas production plant, according to the Associated Press.]
The recent losses have dealt a severe blow to Iranian morale. Military analysts say Iran's armed forces appear to be falling apart.
Majnoon, overrun by Iran in 1984, is also significant because some 30 billion barrels of oil lie beneath it. Hashemi Rafsanjani, commander in chief of Iran's armed forces, once spoke of the oil reserves as being a partial payment of Iraqi war reparations to Iran.
In Saturday's battle, Iraq shelled all along Iran's positions while elite Iraqi Republican Guards crossed the channels in open motor boats and tracked amphibious vehicles. The shelling was followed by some 500 bombing and missile raids and sorties by helicopter gunships.
Meanwhile, Iraqi troops advanced to the south and east into Iranian territory to cut off any attempt to reinforce the besieged fighters. A causeway linking Majnoon to Iran was cut early on. The move paid Iraq dividends in the form of large stocks of captured munitions, trucks, tanks, and artillery pieces.
Film of the landing on Majnoon was shown repeatedly on Iraqi television earlier this week. By all accounts, Iranian resistance was broken within hours of the attack, with many soldiers apparently fleeing into the marshes.
The islands have been transformed by military engineers from both sides into a killing ground - crisscrossed with minefields, steel tank traps, and a series of trenches and ridges topped by concrete and sandbagged bunkers. It is a no man's land where brown dust with the consistency of flour seems to hang perpetually in the air. In summer, temperatures regularly climb into the 100s. And there is no shade.
One of the lingering mysteries concerning Iraq's counterattack here is why Iran failed to reinforce its troops. Military analysts say Iran had to know in advance that Iraq was massing forces. But they say Iran reacted too slowly.
Some analysts suggest the Iranians may have been fearful of a possible chemical weapons attack. (Neutral observers say there has been no indication that Iraq used chemical weapons during the offensive.) Others say the Iranian troops were poorly trained and lacked the fundamental will to fight.
``Most of them are untrained soldiers, so it is very easy for us to capture them,'' says First Lieutenant Ali Hussein, who fought in marshes north of Majnoon. He says that some soldiers close to Iranian positions heard them shout to the advancing Iraqis, ``When you attack, we will surrender.'' Lt. Hussein says some of the Iranian prisoners of war (POWs) appeared grateful to be taken captive.
A diplomatic analyst agrees. ``You look at the POWs on television and they were waving at the camera,'' he says. ``They looked almost happy that for them, the war is over.''
An Iraqi official says he has seen a big change in the demeanor of Iranian POWs in recent months. ``Before, you must tie their hands and watch out even for their teeth. They might try to bite you.'' Now, he says, most surrender peacefully. ``The Iranians are fed up with the war.''
The film on Iraqi television showed small groups of tired Iranian fighters walking away from their positions to surrender to the Iraqi troops. Artillery and machine gun fire roared in the background.
Later, Iraqi television filmed the prisoners as they were assembled and paraded at an undisclosed location in Iraq. Most were still covered by the chalk-like brown dust that covers everything at Majnoon.