A Mixed View on Iran's Border

Times Staff Writer

Like many of the Arabs from this southwestern city, Qassem Khatamian didn't realize how he felt about the war in Iraq until it started.

He considered Saddam Hussein a butcher, and thought favorably, if vaguely, of his toppling. But once he confronted the reality of war -- night after night of explosions across the river in southern Iraq and news of deaths in Basra, where he has family -- he wasn't so sure.

"I personally know many who would go to fight for Iraq; we're just waiting for the call to jihad [or holy war], and for Iran to open the border," he said. "We don't want to fight for Saddam, but for our people, our oil and our land. It has nothing to do with him."

From his small shop on the banks of the murky Arvand River, what Iranians call the Shatt al Arab, which separates Iran from southern Iraq, Khatamian, 22, sells imported Coca-Cola and sundries such as hand lotion and toy tanks. In the evenings, he has a front-row seat to the war. Basra is only 30 miles away, and explosions, circling U.S. or British aircraft, and antiaircraft fire light up the sky.

On Friday, a stray missile tore into an abandoned oil warehouse three miles away, leaving a charred ruin of corrugated metal and three injured civilians. Iranian authorities are still trying to determine whether the missile belonged to Iraqi or U.S.-led forces, and are working to calm residents.

Many of the residents of Abadan and nearby Khorramshahr didn't wait for the war to start before they fled the area. Even if there is no fighting on this side of the border, most are still recovering emotionally from Iran's own war with Hussein, which ended 15 years ago. The sounds of war so close at hand invoke painful memories.

These border cities witnessed the fiercest fighting of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. It was here that Iraqi forces launched their invasion in 1980 with a massive air and ground assault. Bullet-riddled buildings, trenches, decaying Iraqi tanks and scorched, topless palm trees still bear testament to the devastation. Hotel workers recall when guest rooms were turned into makeshift hospital rooms to treat soldiers suffering injuries from Iraq's chemical weapons.

If and when the war moves north past Basra, residents hope business will return to normal.

Abbas Sabaii returned to Abadan eight years ago from Glendale to open an ice cream parlor. On Tuesday, only one forlorn family sat picking at saffron and pistachio ice cream.

The start of the war also grounded fishing boats that normally ply the waters off Iraq's Al Faw peninsula. Issa Nasseri took the engine of his little wooden boat home, but stood in the muddy river, his lime green robe tied about his waist, untangling nets.

"I fought in the war with Iraq, but I was never so afraid at the front as I was the night the bombing started," he said.

Perspectives on the war in Abadan often reflect the ethnic split among residents, many of whom are Arab nomads or Arabic-speaking Iranians. Many still have family in Iraq, are more comfortable speaking Arabic than Persian, and identify with Iraq culturally in a way that makes them ambivalent about the war.

On Monday, about 700 people demonstrated against the war in the slums of the provincial capital of Ahvaz, chanting, "With our blood, our spirits, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Saddam." The crowd gathered outside a religious school, where a local imam preached that it was their duty to support the Iraqis, local news agencies said.

A few nervous shopkeepers in the garbage-lined streets insisted that the crowd had shouted its support of Islam, rather than of Hussein. In Arabic, the chant rhymes either way. Arab residents fear local officials will punish them for appearing to support Iran's historic enemy.

The unease of the local Arab community about the war grows as rumors filter across the border about the chaos in Basra, and atrocities committed by the Iraqi regime in the days leading up to war.

There is both dismay and pride at the fierce resistance reported in Basra.

"Everyone is terrified," said a visiting Iraqi who identified himself as Kazem. "They remember what happened in the last war to soldiers who deserted, and people who rose against the regime."

For some, the war is a distraction from a sleepy provincial life.

Down the river, local residents were spending the afternoon on the small wharf across from Iraqi territory.

Families ate falafel and popcorn, browsed through shops and peered into Iraq for signs of action. A man videotaped an Iraqi military speedboat whizzing past. Children ran around waving balloons.

"At night, the women scream when they hear the bombs," said Hakim Alvand, an 18-year-old fisherman, guarding his catch of small fish. "But I'm not scared. War is nothing new."

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