FISH CANAL, Iranian-Occupied Iraq — Amid the craters, the barbed wire and the endless parapets, a flock of starlings darted over the battlefield, surveying the wreckage of war that stretched to the horizon and beyond.
The piece of windswept, uninhabited earth seven miles east of the Iraqi port city of Basra fell to Iranian forces earlier this month at a horrific cost in human lives that has become the trademark of the 6 1/2-year-old Persian Gulf War.
The Iranians' gains, constituting roughly three square miles, brought their lines well west of the Jasim River and a few thousand yards closer to Basra, whose buildings are visible beyond the flat, barren moonscape and the Shatt al Arab waterway.
The gains also gave them the eastern tip of the Fish Canal, a half-mile-wide, 15-mile-long water barrier constructed by the Iraqis as part of the Basra defenses.
Iran's advances, after larger gains in the same area last January, were assessed by analysts as "marginally significant" in a conflict locked in an apparent stalemate.
In many ways, the scale and intensity of the Iran-Iraq War is comparable with the trench warfare of World War I in France and Belgium.
The smell of death and scale of destruction along the southern front is difficult to exaggerate.
The battlefields east of the Shatt al Arab have been churned into wasteland with debris, rotting bodies and twisted metal strewn across the landscape.
Khorramshahr, once a thriving Iranian city of 150,000, has long since been abandoned, reduced to rubble. Foreign reporters who entered the city last week were unable to find a building left undamaged.
"It's become a war of attrition," a senior diplomat in Tehran summed up. "I think it could go on for ages."
Last weekend, Iran's hold on the newly won territory was certainly less than complete--as a group of foreign reporters, who had been taken to the area, discovered when they were spotted by Iraqi forward observers and sent scrambling by a brief but uncomfortably accurate artillery barrage.
An Iranian commander involved in the weeklong battle claimed that Iraqi dead and wounded numbered 13,000, most likely an exaggeration. Western analysts estimated Iranian casualties in the thousands.
Those who were killed join the estimated one-half million believed to have died so far in the war.
Some Western and Asian military experts believe that the current fighting east of Basra is a preview to a major offensive Iran is preparing to launch within the next month, before the onset of the dry season.
Dry Weather Favors Iraq
Dry, clear weather favors Iraq, which enjoys a 5-to-1 superiority in armor and an 8-to-1 superiority in warplanes.
Any major new Iranian offensive might also gain from the momentum of previous limited Iranian successes, military experts believe.
"There are preparations--stockpiling of arms, ammunition, fuel, food and movement of artillery," one diplomat noted. "I think a major attack is coming."
Iranian authorities severely restricted the movements of foreign reporters who recently visited the southern front, and it was not possible to confirm plans for a new offensive. However, some troops in Khorramshahr--now nearly leveled by the years of fighting--said they had been placed on what one called a "full alert for a new operation."
Empty crates of American-made grenades and artillery shells were clearly visible near the front, although a visitor could not assess the impact on the war of controversial U.S. arms shipments to Iran.
Analysts believe that a new Iranian offensive might come farther north along the central front, east of Baghdad, but they consider it more likely here in the crucial south, where the bulk of the two armies is deployed.
Diplomats in Tehran expressed the belief that Iranian authorities might mount a major offensive in response to a sense of war-related restlessness among the citizenry.
These diplomats admit that those opposed to the war remain a small minority in Iran and that there is little hard evidence of disenchantment, but several said they believe that support for the war has peaked.
One longtime resident of Tehran indicated that revelations of U.S.-Iranian arms deals had dampened some of the Iranians' idealistic zeal, and several diplomats also said they sense some public disquiet over the high losses associated with Iran's tactics of large-scale infantry assaults.
Nevertheless, morale among volunteers headed for the front remains unquestionably high.
Volunteers interviewed in Tehran ranged between 15 and 50 years of age, while many of those nearer the front appeared to be in their young teens.
Despite recent advances, not even the Iranians themselves speak of any short-term victory.
Indeed, last week the spiritual leader of Iran's holy crusade against Iraq, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, scotched speculation of a rumored cease-fire formula that reportedly called for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to relinquish absolute power, as demanded by Iran, and share power with others.