Iran, Iraq: Old Foes Warm Up POW Exchange Began over the Weekend. but Barriers to Real Dtente Remain. Series: Iraqi Soldiers Keep Watch at a Checkpoint on the Border with Iran. despite Hints of Rapprochement, Including the Current Exchange of Prisoners from the 1980-88 War, Deep Divisions Remain between the Two Countries. BY FALEH KHEIBER/REUTERS MAP: Showing Iraq and Iran. BY STAFF

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The endless wet mud flats of Iraq's Fao Peninsula are marked with crumbling trenches and battlefield berms, and point to one bleak fact of Iraq's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s: to fight this war was an agony.

Its severity is still very evident today, as Iraq and Iran take their first cautious steps toward rapprochement. Iraqis and diplomats say that there are mutual tactical reasons now for dtente between the two giants of the Persian Gulf. At the moment, some 6,000 Iraqi prisoners of war are being released by Iran, most after more than a decade in captivity.

But with more than 1 million from both sides killed in the war, the list of differences is long and likely to prevent any strategic alliance. Iraq and Iran have been rivals for centuries, since Iraq served as the eastern anchor of the Ottoman Empire, against Persia. Across this former battlefront, along the contested Shatt al-Arab waterway, the desolation speaks of total war: Entire forests of date palms have been burned or had their branches severed by the sheer volume of artillery fire. Mile after mile, the trunks remain eerily standing, like a bed of nails that stretch as far as the eye can see. One can almost hear the suction of tanks and armored vehicles stuck in the mud. The wet cold winters and sticky suffocating summers rich with insect life compounded the misery of those who fought in the trenches, World War I-style. This wasteland today resembles postwar Verdun more than any modern battlefield, and along one stretch of road a small, makeshift memorial is fitting: Propped upon a rusting tank shell is a still-muddied helmet. Effect of US presence Though the eventual cease-fire of 1988 meant that no side had gained, Iraq and Iran are only now quietly working to improve relations. Iraq has been isolated since President Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, and were expelled by American-led forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And Iran has for months sought to improve ties with all its neighbors, who have long been suspicious of the spread of Iran's Islamic revolution. Added to the equation are US forces in the Gulf, which now number some 35,000 troops. Their presence disturbs both Iraq and Iran for different reasons, though they are there to "protect" oil-producing US allies such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar, and to enforce the American policy of "dual containment" against Iraq and Iran. The new Iraq-Iran moves reflect a changing situation in the Middle East, however, that has brought Israel and Turkey into close military alliance, with America's blessing. "The best policy for Iraq in the future would be dtente between Iraq, Iran, and Syria, to confront the new alliances," says Saad Naji Jawad, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad. But, notes one diplomat, "here we have three partners with very different interests." The American policy of containment has "helped push" Iraq and Iran together, Professor Jawad says, and the large US military presence in the Gulf means that "Iran feels threatened, too, because they know they are the second target." Iraq has initiated several "let's make up" initiatives, but each time for political reasons. Shortly after its invasion of Kuwait, for example, it released thousands of Iranian prisoners of war from the Iran-Iraq war - all except one pilot, who was shot down over Iraq on the eve of hostilities and who Iraq held as evidence that it did not start the war - to enlist Iranian support. Then on the eve of the Gulf War, more than 100 Iraqi jet fighters flew to Tehran in a risky Iraqi gamble to preserve them from the allied air campaign. Iran has never returned the planes, and the Islamic Republic still demands billions of dollars in compensation for damage done during the Iraq-Iran war, which began with an Iraqi invasion of Iranian territory and devolved into mutual destruction of oil facilities, indiscriminate air and missile attacks on main cities, and widespread use of chemical weapons, at first by Iraq. …