FAW, IRAQ, SEPT. 28 -- Two years ago, this sunbaked town at the tip of Iraq's toehold on the Persian Gulf was a shell-cratered ruin of the Iran-Iraq war. Today, a new Faw -- a town of heroic monuments to that eight-year conflict -- is rising from the rubble.
Government officials brought foreign journalists to Faw today for a tightly controlled visit, the first trip for reporters outside Baghdad since Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait last month. The road southeast from Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, stretches through 50 miles of war-wasted land.
Vast tracts of flat, khaki-colored earth are broken into quadrants and sectors by lines of bunkers built by both sides during the war. At some points the remains of date palm groves, destroyed by years of artillery barrages, stretch to the horizon in a great stubble of stumps. In Faw (rhymes with cow), a few ruined buildings remain as reminders of Iraq's fight to recover this peninsula, a battle that Baghdad says cost 53,000 Iraqi lives.
The government did not state precisely why it permitted journalists to go to Faw and Basra today. But the sites selected for the visit tended to support several of the themes promoted by Baghdad in explaining its stance to the world -- especially the ability to endure prolonged and massive war-inflicted damage and ultimately to recover from it.
As buses carrying the reporters passed through the bleak Faw Pennisula battlefields, Information Ministry official Saadoun Janabi stressed the intensity of the fighting against the Iranians and the weight of casualties borne by Iraq. Over the nearly two months since his invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has said the United States will lose any confrontation with Iraq because Americans -- unlike Iraqis -- would not be willing to suffer massive casualties.
In Basra, that theme seemed underscored during a stop at the Shatt al-Arab, where, at the order of Saddam, statues of 93 "noble martyrs" -- military officers killed in the Faw campaign -- stand in identical poses along a third of a mile of riverbank, each of them with arms outstretched, pointing the way to victory (and their deaths), across the river toward Iranian territory.
The section of Faw that journalists were allowed to see is under construction. The site is crisscrossed by freshly paved boulevards. Celebration Square, a triumphal gate and other monuments rise starkly from tracts of bare earth. Billboards hail Faw by its new nickname: "The City of Sacrifice and the Gateway to Magnificent Victory." Eerily, no one lives here anymore.
Both the images of destruction and renewal here also appear to underscore Iraqi determination to protect -- and, if possible, expand -- its single outlet to the sea. That objective has been widely seen as one of the major reasons Saddam ordered the invasion of Kuwait.
The view from Faw's waterfront illustrated Iraq's historical angst over the strategic vulnerability of its tiny Persian Gulf coastline. Across 600 yards of blue-green currents, the flag of Iran flapped above a bunker on the far bank of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. A line of twisted metal piers stretched across the river, the remains of a bridge built by Iran to link the two banks during the two years that it occupied Faw. Along the Iraqi riverbank, concrete and sandbagged bunkers had been constructed among the reeds every 100 yards.
During the six decades that Iraq has developed as a modern state, the Shatt al-Arab has served as an economic jugular vein, Iraq's only direct route to the gulf for the oil exports and critical imports that have fed its growth. But successive Iraqi governments have declared it unacceptable to share the waterway -- no wider than the Anacostia River -- with its most bitter enemy.
In the past 20 years Iraq tried repeatedly to gain control over both banks of the river. It demanded that concession from Iran before agreeing in 1975 with the shah to accept a border down the middle of the waterway. Saddam repudiated the treaty five years later and invaded Iran in part to implement the claim.
When Saddam's effort to gain territory as a buffer for Faw and the Shatt al-Arab failed with the Iran-Iraq truce in 1988, his government turned to the idea of replacing, rather than reinforcing, the river. A canal already had been built to connect Basra with the Kuwaiti -- rather than the Iranian -- side of the Faw Peninsula, and Baghdad announced that Saddam was considering a larger project, involving "the possibility of diverting the course of the Shatt al-Arab waterway."
Iraq has continued to work on moving its main shipping channel away from Iran, dredging the approach to the port of Umm Qasr, which faces Kuwait. Iraq's demand, before the invasion, to use Kuwait's Warba and Bubiyan islands was an effort to gain full control over that channel.
The visit to the Iranian border at Faw was the first opportunity for foreigners to observe the frontier since Saddam accepted Iranian terms for peace last month in order to redeploy his forces dug in here to Kuwait and the Saudi border.
In Faw, Iraqi soldiers and officials showed no particular concern about the Iranian side of the river and allowed journalists to walk down the bank for a closer look. Indeed, they required the reporters to leave their cameras behind, saying they did not want to alarm the Iranians with picture-taking across the waterway.