The bitter war between Iran and Iraq that began one year ago was expected at its outset to be short. Instead it has bogged down to a sapping war of attrition with neither winners nor losers.

It also has clearly become more of a battle of political will between Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iraq's President Saddam Hussein than the clash of armies on the ground.

The official Iraqi and Iranian propagandists depict a far more active state of battle down the 300-mile-long front--which ranges in depths of five to 20 miles inside Iran, from the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in the north down through the Iranian oil heartland of Khuzestan Province to the shattered port of Khorramshahr on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway in the south.

Hardly a day goes by without Radio Baghdad and Tehran radio broadcasting contradictory reports of new victories, offensives or counteroffensives, for their respective forces.

On a typical day recently, Iran spoke of a major breakthrough near the town of Susangerd at almost the same time that the Iraqi News Agency was reporting that Saddam Hussein was visiting his troops at the front to the north around the town of Sar-e-pol, boasting of "victories being achieved in all sectors of the battlefield."

To those accustomed to following the war of communiques--American journalists have been excluded from the war zone for months--the tip-off to the dubiousness of such claims is the very names of the towns supposedly being fought over. Invariably, they are the same towns reported as scenes of "victories" in the first weeks of the war, and regularly mentioned as battle sites since, testifying to the overall stability of the front.

Sar-e-pol, for instance, is a mere 12 miles down the the road from the Iranian border town of Qasr-e-Shirin, which the Iraqis overran with great fanfare in the first days of their drive into Iran. Susangerd, 20 miles into Iran toward the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz, is still in Iranian hands despite repeated Iraqi claims over the past year to have overrun it on their way to capture Ahwaz, which, despite early Iraqi claims, remains in Iranian hands.

Another example of the desultory pace is found in the twin Iranian cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab, the disputed 120-mile waterway that is Iraq's only outlet to the sea.

The question of sovereignty over the waterway triggered the war, abetted by the historical enmity between Iraqis and Iranians, personal antagonisms between Saddam Hussein and Khomeini, competition for dominance of the Persian Gulf and Baghdad's fears that Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalism would spread to Iraqi Shiite Moslems.

Baghdad and Tehran disagree over who started the war and when. Iraq says it began Sept. 4, when Iranians shelled four Iraqi border posts. Iran says it began Sept. 22, when Iraqi troops invaded Iran and planes bombed Iranian air bases.

In any case, control of the Shatt-al-Arab, its port of Khorramshahr and the oil refinery complex of Abadan was the initial focal point. Saddam Hussein apparently expected that his assault on Iran would quickly put him in control of the Shatt-al-Arab and its principal Iranian towns.

The capture of Khorramshahr and Abadan was to be used to force Iran to accept Iraqi sovereignty over the Shatt-al-Arab, which had been divided between the two nations in a 1975 treaty that Saddam Hussein had been forced to sign with the then-powerful shah of Iran. The Iraqi leader unilaterally abrogated the treaty on the eve of his attack on Iran.

Saddam Hussein's gamble failed. Although Iraq claimed the fall of both cities in the first days of the war, it took his forces more than a month to force stubborn Iranian defenders, mostly Revolutionary Guards, out of the shell-devastated port of Khorramshahr, now called Muhammar by its Iraqi occupiers.

Abadan, of vital importance to Iran by virtue of its vast oil refinery complex--once the Middle East's biggest--never fell. The city, its refinery severely damaged by Iraqi shelling and its skies still darkened from a year of oil blazes, continues to confine the Iraqis to the rubble of Khorramshahr, six miles away.

Recent visitors to the two towns report the war that began with such fierce exchanges now consists of scattered daily artillery and mortar rounds fired by two tired and depleted armies, and occasional ground probes that are reported to the world as major attacks and counterattacks.

The toll to both OPEC nations in war-damaged oil facilities, vastly reduced oil exports, drained foreign exchange reserves and destruction of military equipment is said by some Western analysts to have cost Iran more than $100 billion, and Iraq probably half that amount.

By conventional standards, such a toll should have brought the war to an end by now. But Saddam Hussein and Khomeini have little room for compromise.

Saddam Hussein has depicted the war as his personal Qadisiyah, the town where the Arabs defeated the Persians in 636 to establish their control over what today is Iraq. To retreat from Iranian territory today would be tantamount to admitting that he misjudged the situation. Such an admission, Western and Arab analysts insist, would probably end his rule.

For Khomeini and his mullah-dominated Islamic republic, whose militant Shiism extols martyrdom above all other values, to compromise while Iraqi troops are occupying approximately 9,000 square miles of Iranian territory also seems unthinkable.

Analysts add that Khomeini's increasingly challenged theocracy is just as happy having the Army--still suspect for its support of the shah until Khomeini toppled him in 1979--tied up in Khuzestan.

With Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards fighting almost daily gunfights in the streets of Tehran with urban guerrillas of the leftist Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, with the leadership being decimated by expertly planned assassinations that have already killed a president and prime minister and hundreds of mullahs, an Army able to turn to politics could well tip the balance against Khomeini.

The Iraqi, benefiting from financial support of such Arab allies as Saudi Arabia and still apparently in control at home, has settled on hopes that the rising political and economic chaos in Iran will lead to the collapse of Khomeini's militant Shiite regime.

Arab and Western analysts believe Khomeini and his forces are counting on repression of the Mujaheddin, through dragnets and executions of suspects, to allow them to consolidate their hold on Iran and turn their full attention to the war.

"This is an oriental war, not a war that can be interpreted by the analytical standards of the West," said a Jordanian minister who travels often to Baghdad. "It is not economics and military equipment that will determine it as much as it is the determination, and survivability, of the two men who are leading Iraq and Iran."