ON the flat desert plain that flanks the road from Ahvaz to Khorramshahr, thousands of green tents are crammed with Iraqi Shiite families. These 70,000 refugees fled southern Iraq during the civil war that followed Kuwait's liberation. They call themselves ``the forgotten ones.''
Indeed, Iraqi Shiites stranded in the southern Iranian province of Khuzestan accuse the international community of refusing to spend a single penny to aid them, fixing its eyes instead on the Kurdish exodus in the north.
Refugee flow slows
A few miles north of Khorramshahr, the Iranian Red Crescent has established what it calls a ``forward base.'' The flow of Shiite refugees from Iraq has almost come to a halt, explains a spokesman for the Red Crescent. ``A few hundred newcomers arrive every day. They spend 48 hours in this forward camp and are later dispatched to camps spread throughout the province.''
Things seem to be well organized. Every few hours, water trucks fill the camp's tanks. Those arriving are not exhausted like refugees from mountainous Iraqi Kurdistan: Iraqi towns are close to Iranian territory and crossing the border in this flat plain is easy.
A Iraqi in his 20s explains: ``Our lives have become senseless. First we had the war against Iran, which we settled without gaining anything. Then we made war against Kuwait and it turned out to be a disaster. Now we have a civil war.''
The young refugee asserts that fighting between the Republican Guard and Shiite rebels is still going on in southern Iraq. This contradicts reports by Western correspondents who recently visited the Iraqi port of Basra and said local Iraqi authorities were in complete control of the city.
The truth is somewhere in between, contends an Iranian soldier: ``The Iraqi authorities are in control of most of their southern cities during the daytime. But soldiers are regularly attacked at night by guerrillas. From the border-post we can hear the shootings and the explosions.''
The Iraqi civil war is triggering new tensions between Baghdad and Tehran. Over the past few weeks, Iraqi officials have charged that Iranian fighters are crossing the border to support Kurdish and Shiite insurgents. Abdul Amir al-Anbari, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, accused Iran April 28 of sending ``a squad of 35 terrorists inside Iraq to murder Iraqi leaders.''
A guide from the Iranian Islamic Guidance Ministry vehemently denied these allegations and insisted Iranian customs officers prevent non-Iraqi citizen from crossing the frontier into Iraq. This marks a dramatic change in Iran's proclaimed foreign policy: During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Iranians would pride themselves on taking foreigners into Iraqi territory.
An Iranian journalist in Tehran says the new rules derive from a decision taken a few months ago by President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who reportedly told Cabinet members: ``We should mind our own business and stop interfering in other countries' affairs. We must insist on the inalienability of existing borders in the region. Therefore, Iranian citizens are no longer allowed to enter any country without the approval of the local authorities.''
The journalist, however, acknowledged that his government is unable to verify that Iraqis entering Iran in the morning are not returning to Iraq after sunset.
Western diplomats in Tehran say they believe Iran is used as a rear base by some Iraqi Shiite opponents. But the diplomats were unable to confirm Iraqi allegations that weapons are flowing from Iran to Iraq.
Shiites want to return
Shiite refugees this reporter spoke to insisted they want to return to Iraq but would like President Saddam Hussein ousted. Seven thousand have returned home so far. But the pace has slowed, the Iranian news agency IRNA said, because of reports from Iraq that some refugees are being arrested and executed by Iraqi security forces.
A senior UN official in Geneva said May 3 that Iraqi Shiites in Iran should not be encouraged to return home, giving credence to IRNA's report. The UN official warned that up to 600,000 Shiites may cross into Iran this week as the last United States soldiers withdraw from southern Iraq.
Many refugees say: ``We would like the international community to create in the south of Iraq safe havens similar to the ones currently being set up for the Kurds in the north.''
The Iranian government is increasingly distancing itself from the Tehran-based Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which claims responsibility for the Shiite uprising. The assembly is divided and has proved unable to rally popular support throughout Iraq, a senior Iranian diplomat says.
``There is a growing feeling in Tehran that the troubles that occurred in southern Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf war were more the result of a power vacuum than the consequence of an organized political uprising.
``Moreover,'' he continues, ``no serious disturbances took place in central Iraq, which has led us to believe that if successful the Kurdish and the Shiite uprisings would have brought about the dismemberment of Iraq, which we oppose.''