LAND OF THE MARTYRS; Inside Bush's Next Target Where Fanatics Are Ready and Willing to Fight to the Death for Iran
Byline: KEVIN TOOLIS in Iran
IF the US army does invade Iran, the war will start at Mehran on the Iraqi frontier, 700 miles west of Tehran amidst the rusting tanks and war litter of the last invasion.
In 1980 Saddam Hussein's armies pushed deep, 180 miles, into Iranian territory. Their rusting tanks still litter the highway east.
In the bitter fighting Mehran changed hands three times. More than one million Iranians were killed or maimed before the war ended in stalemate in 1988.
Today, Mehran has been rebuilt but the town with its army bases and Martyr's Square is a living shrine to the cost in blood.
Martyrdom, dying fighting the enemy, has become a state religion.
Cleric Hassan Ali Ahangaran, director of Tehran's Martyr's Museum, says: "Martyrdom is inherent in our culture and our religion. One of the commands of God is jihad - holy war. Whenever it is felt our religion is under attack it is everyone's duty to defend it - even at the cost of their life."
Ahangaran, whose exhibits praise suicide bombers, has nothing but scorn for the new rulers of Iraq. "Saddam has gone but another has come - the US Government. The invasion of Iraq was an act of madness. It has neither logic, reason nor sense. It shows the bigotry, the ugliness of US power. Now the Americans are trapped like in Vietnam. They cannot escape without humiliation."
Iranians follow a version of Islam known as Shia whose central figures were all killed by their enemies. The most important is Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Pledging yourself to be a martyr like Hussain is at the core of the Shia faith.
"We are like loaded guns in the hands of the President Ayatollah Khameini. When his sacred finger pulls the trigger, I will be shot towards the enemy like a bullet from a gun," says Hassan Abbassi Kian, 26, whose father was martyred in the battle against Saddam.
LIKE his father, Hassan has joined the Baseji, the "volunteers for God" who pledge their lives to defend the Islamic Republic.
Hassan was just eight when his 32-year-old father returned voluntarily to the front - to die.
"I remember our farewell. I followed him in the lane and tried to carry his bag. But he told me to go back. Before he went he told my mother that the family could not be an obstacle to his martyrdom.
"He insisted death was a new life, an eternal life. His death was conscious, he chose that way. He asked us not to cry for him if he was martyred. He said: 'If you hear of my martyrdom cry for Imam Hussain not for me'."
Hassan Kian adds: "If we are attacked again of course we will fight. But we are different from our enemies. The Iraqis, the Americans, they all fight for worldly aims. But we are not fighting for this life. Here is just a passage to the next world. Death is just the gateway to the next life."
In Tehran's Behshet-e Zahra graveyard the cost of this suicidal view of death can be seen in the endless rows, of war graves. Many are adorned with pictures and mementoes of the thousands of child soldiers, some as young as 12, who died in hopeless military offensives. Businessman Muhammad Davoodi, 45, was there cleaning the grave of his brother Ahmed who was killed in 1982 when he was just 19.
"My mother and sister come every week and I try to as well. I lost abrother in a war that was forced on us. Saddam was just a puppet of America, but I I blame England as well for being behind all these things. …