Revolutionary Guards were playing table tennis in this desert flatland that has been the focus of the four-month Persian Gulf war. For as the conflict drags through the winter months, the revolving battle for control of Khuzestan Province, Iran's oil heartland, is centered on heavy artillery duels.
But the evidence of earlier phases is all about. The Iraqis have occupied the city twice, even installing their own mayor the first time. Dozens of Iraqi tanks knocked out in the first weeks lie astride the Ahwaz-Susangerd highway. A few of them are partially submerged by the incipient floodwaters coming from the melting mountain snows and the opening of sluice gates, which the Iranians reportedly hope to turn to their advantage in the months ahead.
It was also from this road that the Iranians launched the most audacious attack in their big "counteroffensive" of early January. Tank formations thrust southward into the plain between Susangerd and Hamid.
The road, and Iranian concentrations dug in along it, is the target of an Iraqi artillery barrage. But, in spite of its intensity, this seems to be ineffectual. It is so random that the soldiers do not observe tight cover, relying on the laws of chance instead.
The Iranian chief of staff, Gen, Vallyollah Fallahi, called this newest strategy a "stationary offensive," which is aimed at destroying the enemy rather than capturing territory. According to Fallahi, Iraq began the war with an advantage of 5 to 1 in troop strength. But he said that had now been reduced to about even and about 80 percent of Iraq's regular troops have been incapacitated.
The nearest Iraqi positions were reported to be about a mile away. The shelled, empty streets echoed with incoming and outgoing artillery of such variety that only a trained ear couldmake any sense of it. At the edge of the town, about a half dozen columns of sand and dust, thrown up by the latest impacts, could be seen rising or dissolving on both sides of the lines.
The outcome of the Iranian January counteroffensive remains unclear. The most autoritative Iranian version of it came from President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr who spends much of his time on the battle front and recently received some Western journalists in battle dress. The Iranians draw an important contrast between Bani-Sadr and his Iraqi counterpart, Saddam Hussein, who, so far as is known, has never been near the war zone.
"We lost 88 tanks," he said of the counteroffensive. "But we definitely destroyed twice as many of the enemy tanks. In the first assault we did not lose a lot, probably less than 10 or 15, but the enemy left whatever it had met no resistance, Bani-Sadr explained, they would have continued their advance as far as possible. Although they yielded most of the territory initially gained, he said it did not constitute a defeat. The counteroffensive forced the Iraqis to bring up reinforcements, he said, but they lost more of their forces in the process.
Bani-Sadr denied the reports that his advancing tanks had simply run out of ammunition during the push. Yet some Iranian officers reported a shortage of equipment, especially spare parts for Chieftan tanks and Phantom jetfighters.
It is hard to tell just how serious the shortage is, especially since the government has downplayed the spare parts issue. But in an indiscretion that probably reflected exasperation rather than serious intent, one major said, "If we don't get what we need in the next few weeks, we shall probably turn to the Russians."
In such circumstances, Iran cannot afford the loss of 88 tanks in a mobile offensive, and it seems likely that at least for the foreseeable future, it will concentrate, with its stationary offensive, on the husbanding of resources, and especially in the exposed plains of Khuzestan, where mobility is likely to be most costly.
In other sectors the Iranians have kept the ground they regained in the counteroffensive. The provincial capital, Ahwaz, is now out of Iraqi artillery range, and the enemy, once about seven miles away, has been pushed to Hamid, 22 miles away. According to Gen. Fallahi, the Iranians are both destroying and pushing back the Iraqis in one or two sectors of the mountainous north.
But even without a lifting of arms embargoes in response to the release of the 52 American hostages, Iran will almost certainly carry on to the bitter end.
"So long as I am president," Bani-Sadr said, "we shall not stop until we have driven every Iraqi out."