A plump woman in a black scarf cradled the pearl white head of a skeleton, covering it with kisses and tears. Piece by piece, she picked up her dead son's remains, a collection of bones in a tattered uniform, and rubbed them on her face.

The audience at Tehran's Martyrs Cemetery watching this chilling scene on tape wept openly. The woman's son, like 600,000 other young Iranian men, died in the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Celebrated as martyrs in a holy war, they were buried in government-funded cemeteries across Iran, where families regularly gather to remember their slain sons, brothers and fathers.

Tehran's Martyrs Cemetery, with its miles of tightly packed white tombstones and photos of fresh-faced boys who died in battle, is a haunting reminder of the war's toll. But it also offers a glimpse of Iran's highly charged debate on the politics of war and martyrdom, a critical facet in the dispute between those who support the liberalizing reforms set in motion by President Mohammed Khatemi and those who oppose them as backsliding from the Islamic teachings that have underpinned Iran's government since the Shah was overthrown in 1979.

The student protesters who rocked Tehran last month with their demands for more personal freedom and greater government accountability provided the most explosive recent manifestation of the dispute. Conservatives, who still control the main levers of power, have resisted Khatemi's calls for social and political liberalization and were scandalized by the demonstrations. Emotions are still raw in Tehran after the protests led to riots, arrests and violence.

"Those protesting liberal students don't appreciate the sacrifices we made during the [Iran-Iraq] war. If they think we are just going to step aside after all the blood we shed, they are terribly wrong," said Ali Kazemzadeh, a 30-year-old war veteran.

Kazemzadeh is a member of the Basij, a primarily volunteer militia force renowned for courage in the war. It claims to be 5 million strong and believes it is charged with restoring order on the streets as part of a crackdown on the protests.

But Keyvan Attari, a 21-year-old college student, is frustrated by what he calls "the Basiji attitude."

"War veterans and martyrs' families claim that they are the only ones who ever sacrificed for our country," he said. "As soon as we call for reform, they call us traitors to the cause."

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late supreme leader, called for a holy war and promised martyrdom to all soldiers who died for the cause. Motivated by religious fervor and nationalist pride, millions of young Iranians heeded Khomeini's call. For eight years, Iran battled Iraq's military, which was heavily financed by the petrodollars of conservative Persian Gulf Arab states.

Today, nearly 12 years after the last shot, Iran is still filled with reminders of the war. Massive billboard images of prominent martyrs dot the highways. Anniversaries of major battles are celebrated. A film genre, known as "sacred defense," centers on heart-tugging stories of war sacrifice. The evening television news still begins with scenes from the war front, accompanied by patriotic music.

"One should not underestimate the impact of the war on today's politics. Many of those who oppose the government's political development scheme genuinely see the Khatemi reforms and the student protests as a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs," said Kaveh Basmenji, an Iranian journalist and writer.

Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is seen as close to the conservatives, but he came to the defense of Iran's students recently, reminding worshipers in a Friday prayer sermon that Iran's cemeteries are filled with college students. Khamenei's statement was widely interpreted as an olive branch to frustrated youth. Nearly two-thirds of Iran's population is under 30, according to official figures.

"Khamenei's comments were very important because they showed that he has heard the students' demands. The fact that he reminded everyone that the students had also been martyrs was very critical in the context of Iran's political discourse," said Hamid Reza Jalaipour, publisher of the bold and popular pro-Khatemi reformist daily Neshat.

Jalaipour, who lost three brothers in the war, freely admits that his family's credentials give him more breathing room to be critical of the conservative clerics.

"The conservatives can't accuse me of being a traitor. They can't attack me in the same way that they attack their liberal opponents," Jalaipour said.

The issue of war martyrs has also taken on an important social dimension. Martyrs' families receive special privileges, ranging from quotas for university appointments to low-interest government loans.

"The martyrs' privileges are Iran's version of affirmative action," said Siamak Namazi, a Tehran-based political analyst educated in the United States. "Therefore, it creates many of the same resentments and controversy and political divisions."

Meanwhile, the grief lingers at the Martyrs Cemetery. Mohammad Dowlatabadi and his wife never miss a weekend visit to their son's grave. Ali Dowlatabadi, born in 1967, died in 1987, just one year before Khomeini reluctantly agreed to end the war. Ali lays buried next to his friend, 19-year-old Gholamreza Raeii, who died in the same offensive.

As the orange-tinted dusk gives way to night, Dowlatabadi scrubs the dirt off his son's white tombstone. His wife scatters tulip petals and offers sweets to passersby.

"I know I am supposed to be proud to have a son that is a martyr, but I just miss my boy so much. I miss him so much," Dowlatabadi said, breaking down in tears, his red-eyed wife consoling him.

CAPTION: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei