Iraqi troops today ground methodically toward Abadan -- only about 800 feet across the Shatt-al-Arab waterway from here -- and artillery pounded the oil depots on the opposite bank, sending thick, black smoke billowing into the clear desert sky.
The Iraqi military command, which for two weeks says it has been poised to take Abadan, now says the city's capture is imminent. The command says its forces are within two miles of Abadan, and independent sources confirmed that equipment has been pouring across an important approach bridge, erected on pontoons over the Karun River four days ago.
The Iraqi strategy seems clear to observers here -- weaken the Iranian regular troops and Revolutionary Guards with relentless artillery bombardments while taking only a small number of casualties among ground forces in direct clashes.
At an abandoned port authority complex and ferry crossing at Wazcelia, about a mile south of here, Iraqi troops facing the Abadan complex across the river have been harassing the Iranians on the opposite shore with mortar fire and artillery, setting fire to 52 crude oil storage tanks and 100 tanks of gasoline. A railroad and all the pipelines to the mammoth refinery just to the north have been destroyed, Army officers said.
During a visit to this riverside strongpoint, an Iraqi lieutenant colonel claimed cross the river, thereby squeezing the Iranians between his unit and Army forces advancing from the northeast. But he explained he was reluctant to launch such an attack because of the poisonous smoke from the burning storage tanks.
"We'll just keep shelling them. Most of them have left anyway. We have plenty of time," the officer said.
From an Iraqi position to the southwest, large-bore artillery shells poured over Abadan and exploded near Khorramshahr. To illustrate his unit's siege ability, the officer suddenly barked an order and an American-built jeep, captured from the Iranians, raced out of a garage, fired a shot from its recoilless rifle and returned to hiding. The only returning fire from the short distance across the river has been occasional sniper rounds, the lieutenant colonel said.
The Iraqi armor moving across the pontoon bridge appeared to be heading in two main directions: north toward Ahwaz, a key road, rail and pipeline hub linking Abadan's refinery with the rest of Iran, and south across inhospitable salt marshes toward the siege of Abadan.
A third group of tanks headed east toward a highway joining the Abadan refinery with the main Iranian oilfields and tanker loading docks along the Persian Gulf. Taken together, the movements suggested an Iraqi strategy aimed at choking off Iranian oil supplies to cripple its war effort and bring home the price of the war to Iranian civilians.
Iraqi civilians also got a tast of the battle again today with the first air raid on Baghdad in 10 days. An Iraqi communique said 12 civilians were wounded as the Iranian F4 Phantoms hit targets believed to include the main oil refinery at Dora on the edge of the city. A column of black smoke was seen rising into the sky from the area of the oil installations but Iraqi officials said nothing about what if anything was hit. i
The state-run Iraqi newspaper Al Thawra claimed that President Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, decided to launch the war on Iran only after learning of an Iranian plan to attack Baghdad "with all its forces." The official paper gave no details of the alleged Iranian plan and observers interpreted the article as an attempt to portray Iraq -- a leader of the nonaligned movement -- as the aggrieved party in the conflict.
Foreign Minister Saadoun Hamadi of Iraq, in a Kuwait newspaper interview, implicitly warned the United States against any resupply of the Iranian army and predicted a long conflict unless Iran bows to Iraqi demands for a readjustment of the Shatt-al-Arab borderline.
"If they do not understand by logic, the will understand by force," Hammadi told the newspaper Al Anba.
The official Iranian news agency, Pars, revealed, meanwhile, that Iranian troops put down an uprising by Kurdish tribesmen. Although clashes between the independent-minded Kurds and central Iranian authorities have been frequent since the Islamic revolution weakened the government in Tehran, the fighting disclosed today marked the first reported unrest on Iranina territory since the Persian Gulf war began 23 days ago.
At the United Nations, the Iraqi leader responded to a cease-fire appeal from Secretary General Kurt Waldheim by pledging that Iraq itself would escort foreign vessels trapped in the fighting to safety. The message from Saddam Hussein to Waldheim, United Press International reported, reflected Iraqi control of the Iranian port of Khorammshahr, where most of the Iraqi reluctance to stop the stranded vessels are moored, and Iraqi reluctance to stop the fighting while the momentum is in its favor.
These considerations also were said to underlie the quick agreement by President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr of Iran when Waldheim proposed last week that the fighting halt and that the ships be allowed to exit the Shatt-al-Arab into the Persian Gulf under the United Nations flag.