Dozens of Soviet-made T62 tanks, each surrounded by neatly packed walls of sunbaked mud, point east from the tops of ridges outside this Iraqi border town about 150 miles southeast of Baghdad. They dominate the barren, brown plains below, broken only by a white strip where salt has been placed to mark the frontier with Iran.
Heavy artillery pieces fire occasionally to harass the Iranians about three miles away. Two plumes of smoke rise from behind a hill where an Iraqi general says that two enemy tanks are burning. Radar dishes, antiaircraft guns and armored personnel carriers dot the string of trenches topped by layers of sandbags.
Iraq's well-entrenched armed forces, bristling with weapons purchased from the Soviet Union and controlling the skies with Soviet- and French-built warplanes, appear strong enough for the present to contain any Iranian thrusts across the border.
Iran's troops, including volunteers as young as 13, showed imagination and daring in piercing Iraqi lines about five to 10 miles north of here at the start of this month. But Iran lacks the soldiers, arms and organization needed for a successful large-scale invasion, according to Western and Asian military attaches and other diplomatic analysts in Baghdad.
"They have enjoyed some marginal successes, but we will push them back," Lt. Gen. Hisham Sabah, commander of Iraq's Fourth Army Corps, told U.S. journalists who visited the front Wednesday.
Iraq, driven out of virtually all of Iran in June, now is defending more than 400 miles of border stretching from the marshy plains outside Basra in the southeast to the rugged mountains around Qasr e Shirin northeast of the capital. The United States and the rulers of the Persian Gulf oil states are hoping that Iraq prevents Iran from exporting its Islamic revolution on the points of bayonets and destabilizing the strategic region.
Morale among the Iraqi troops reportedly is low after 26 months of war, and Iranian infantry, backed by relatively few tanks, surprised and drove back Iraq's crack 10th Armored Division more than 10 miles in the recent fighting near here. But Iraqis in Baghdad say that the fear of being conquered by Iran generally outweighs the fatigue of war.
The two sides are still engaged along a 50-mile front near the border in this region, and the flash of artillery exchanges lit up the night sky in a steady barrage Wednesday evening.
The Iraqis have not yielded more ground in this area, and Iraqi troops easily crushed an attack in the north near Mandali earlier this week.
Iran's principal hope of winning the war currently appears to lie in fighting a war of attrition that gradually saps Iraq's will. Since losing tens of thousands killed when a major offensive was stopped outside of Basra in July, Iran has switched to assaults with limited objectives.
These smaller attacks have come at different points along the border, usually after weeks or months of calm in the area. They have been aimed in several cases at regaining small enclaves of Iranian territory still held by Iraq rather than at entering Iraq itself.
Iraq enjoys a significant advantage in virtually every category of weapon, although its troops have not proved particularly adept at using the weapons effectively.
Western military sources estimate that the Iraqis have about 3,000 tanks compared to about 800-900 possessed by Iran. The Iraqis also have the edge in armored personnel carriers by 2,500 to 1,200-1,500 and have 1,800 heavy artillery pieces compared to fewer for Iran.
"They certainly have plenty of stuff," said one military analyst. "If they had showed more skill and dash, they would have defeated the Iranians inside Iran last year."
The Iraqi Air Force of more than 300 planes and scores of helicopter gunships dominates the skies. Iran has fewer than 50 operating combat planes, mostly U.S.-built F4 Phantoms and F5s purchased by Iran under the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The two air forces began the war approximately even, but Iran has not been able to replace its planes after they have been shot down or worn out. Iraq, benefiting from a 10-year-old treaty with the Soviet Union and financed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, has bought new Mig fighter planes from Moscow and about 40 Mirage interceptors from France.
Western military analysts criticize Iraq for neglecting to use its Air Force consistently against targets that would hurt Iran the most. For instance, they point out, aircraft have not been sent repeatedly against bridges or truck convoys to disrupt Iran's vulnerable supply lines.
It is unclear why Iraq has not tried harder to cripple Iran's principal oil shipping terminal at Khark Island. There is speculation that there may be a tacit agreement between the two countries to leave alone each other's oil facilities.
The power of the Air Force appears to be the principal factor in forcing Iran to limit its attacks this autumn to pre-dawn forays when Iraq's planes are least effective.
Although Iran's population is three times as large as Iraq's, the two countries both have roughly 350,000 soldiers facing each other. This works to Iraq's advantage, because an attacker needs substantially more troops than a defender to ensure success.
Already in the drawn-out war, Iraq has sent an entire generation to the front. All males between the ages of 18 and 34 have been conscripted for the Army except those serving in the nation's large internal security forces.
Approximately half of Iran's forces are believed to be irregulars, including large numbers of teen-age volunteers. These ardent young revolutionaries are sent into combat with only several weeks of training, often as shock troops to spearhead surprise attacks, according to Western and Iraqi sources.
Some reports say they have been used as human minesweepers to clear paths for regular troops.
The youthful fighters were mowed down in waves during the attacks on Basra in July, where about 100,000 Iranian troops tried in three major frontal assaults to overrun an equal number of well dug-in Iraqis. The Iraqis' successful defense there helped stem the decline in morale, which had been sliding throughout the spring as the Iranians successfully pushed the Iraqis out of southwest Iran.
The main reason why the Iraqis began holding their positions at Basra apparently was that they were defending their own soil.
With the Iraqis' key weakness potentially being a widespread lack of fighting spirit, the scenario for disaster is a rout in one sector causing a chain reaction.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has devoted considerable effort to trying to boost military morale, particularly among the officer corp. He has given automobiles as presents to his officers -- Mercedes Benz to the generals and Chevrolet Malibus or Toyotas to the lower ranks--and regularly awards medals for valor in highly publicized ceremonies.
The Iraqi defenses are impressive. They have constructed a series of earthworks to protect troops, whose advantage in fire power is particularly effective from fixed positions. Inside the border at Mandali and Fuka, rows of trenches, tank and artillery emplacements bar the path to the interior.
The Iranians reportedly are hampered seriously by poor organization of their delivery of supplies. They need about a month to refurnish their troops after a major assault, and logistics probably would become even more difficult for them if they plunged into Iraq.
The Iranian attacks are considered likely to fall off within a month as winter rains make roads practically impassable. If Iran improves its supply methods and somehow obtains more weapons, however, it might be in a much stronger position by spring to launch an invasion.