HOVEYZEH, Iran — Artillery duels boom from the nearby front, but 1,800 neat, new brick houses here are testament to Iran's determination, in defiance of the war with Iraq, to reconstruct the Arab towns of Khuzistan.
Khuzistan, in southwest Iran, has suffered more than most provinces from the the five-year-old war. The Iraqi army's 17-month occupation in 1980-82 ravaged Hoveyzeh and other towns, and major cities still come under regular bombardment.
However, a new Hoveyzeh, rebuilt at a cost of $120 million, was opened in November. The bill was met in a typical Iranian way: direct financing from the shrine of Imam Reza, a rich and holy Shia Muslim place of pilgrimage in Mashhad, 760 miles away in northeast Iran.
Iran is claiming about $200 billion in war reparations from Iraq as one of its main conditions for peace. In the meantime, war-damaged Iranian towns all along the border strip are twinned with other, more fortunate cities to the east for reconstruction.
The war goes on, severely restricting Iran's development budget, but officials say 82,000 buildings have already been rebuilt or repaired.
The message from the Persian-speaking government in Tehran is not lost on the mostly Arabic-speaking people of this oil-rich area.
Hoveyzeh residents say that before the war they had strong connections with their Arab relations on the other side of the border with Iraq, 22 miles to the west. But as Shia Muslims, they say they prefer Iran's Islamic system.
"Saddam (Hussein, Iraqi president) came here and destroyed all the houses," said Hannoun Saki, 35, an unemployed driver, pointing at the flattened rubble of what once was a town of 10,000. "Iran has built a new city. That, in short, is why I prefer to be Iranian."
"This is the meaning of Islam under Ayatollah (Ruhollah) Khomeini," declared Abdel-Amir Afrawi, 28, a local official of the Martyrs' Foundation.
Despite the artillery and the occasional supersonic crack of a warplane flying overhead, there is little military traffic on the roads, and life in Khuzistan resembles that in many places in the Arab world.
Most junior government officials seem to be Arabic-speaking, and men in flowing robes and Arab-style, checkered headdresses farm palm-tree-dotted fields irrigated by canals.
In Susangerd, women wearing black chadors--sheets to cover the body with two holes cut out Arab-style for the hands--casually walk to market past the rusting shell of a large Iraqi tank, left where it crashed into a water channel.
Witnesses say the devastated front-line city of Khorramshahr to the south, where 250,000 people once lived, is still largely abandoned to Iranian fighters and comes under regular long-range Iraqi artillery fire.
But although Susangerd also lies close to the front and bears many scars from bullets and shrapnel, officials say major reconstruction work has been finished.
Between old slogans such "Death to America" decoratively worked into the brick walls of Hoveyzeh houses, one painted sign gave a new message: "Reconstruction is also war."