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Rattled Iranians gather along the border to watch war in Iraq

ABADAN, Iran—Like star-struck Hollywood tourists trying to glimpse celebrities at the Oscars, Iranians in this southwestern border city lined up along a riverbank on Tuesday evening, using binoculars and camcorders to watch the war in Iraq a quarter-mile away.

For five nights in a row, they hadn't been disappointed. The sounds of missiles, coalition sorties and gunfights have broken windows and rattled nerves in this city of 300,000 along what Iranians call the Arvand River and Iraqis call Shatt-al-Arab.

An errant missile struck a corrugated tin warehouse belonging to the National Iranian Oil Co. four miles inland on Friday. Iranian officials say the missile was American-made, the British say it was likely Iraqi and U.S. officials say they're investigating.

On Tuesday evening, things were deceptively quiet in this city, 30 miles southeast of Basra. An Iraqi military speedboat zoomed past, a reminder that the war in southern Iraq was far from over. "They can fight until the end of the century and Saddam won't lose," predicted one teenage boy selling candy nearby.

The sentiment is one bred from the bloody, eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, in which oil-rich Abadan became a focal point. While Iraqi forces never succeeded in capturing the city, most of the buildings—including the refinery complex—were damaged or destroyed and virtually all the population fled. Today, bullet holes still riddle many buildings.

Few want to see the current war spread to Iran, although many among the largely Arab population here want to join the fight. Their aim, however, isn't to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, although they hate him, but to drive out the Americans, who, they believe, intend to occupy Iraq for 25 years.

Iranian anti-aircraft batteries here reportedly have fired against coalition forces. Islamic Republic officials deny that, but 22-year-old Ghassam Khatamian said he saw it happen.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, a leading Iraqi Shiite cleric who is respected by southern Iranians, issued a fatwa, or religious edict a week ago ordering the faithful not to cooperate with the Americans. Many here, such as Khatamian, a shopkeeper, have interpreted the fatwa to mean they should fight the invaders.

So far, Iran has refused to let them cross into Iraq, Khatamian and others said. What used to be an informal water-and-land route for Iranian and Iraqi Arabs to mingle has been closed.

That's killing business for fishermen such as Isa Nasseri, who lives downriver in the canal-laced town of Arvand Kenar, across from the Faw Peninsula. Nasseri, who hasn't been able to move his wooden boat down the canal and into the river to fish, just wants the war to be over.

Nasseri said he hasn't seen or heard from his Iraqi fishing buddies since Saddam ordered all Iraqi boats inland the day before the war began.

"The first night of the war was so heavy that I—who served on the front during the Iran-Iraq war—was afraid," he said. Ten relatives who had come from central Iran to spend the Iranian New Year holiday with his family wanted to flee, Nasseri added, but he convinced them to stay. Many other townspeople with young children fled.

People have left their homes in Abadan as well. "Usually at this time of year there are so many cars on the streets that you can't move," said Abbas Sabaie, who owns an ice cream shop in the city.

Like many store owners here, he has stretched tape across his plate glass windows to prevent them from shattering.

On Monday, "a rocket hit so close and so loud that you couldn't tell if it hit on Iraqi or Iranian soil," said Hakim Albannaseey, 18, who sold fish next to the riverbank.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.