When I tasted fear: Exclusive extract from Robert Fisk's new book

In the latest extract from his new book, The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk describes the terrifying experience of coming under fire during the Battle of Fish Lake, in the Iran-Iraq war

The Independent

Published: 04 October 2005

The Fish Lake was a stretch of desert west of Shalamcheh - the Iran-Iraq border post where I had been partially deafened by the Iraqi gun batteries shelling Khorramshahr more than six years earlier - but now Shalamcheh was back in Iranian hands and its vast army was moving towards the Shatt al-Arab river and the city of Basra.

Once more, I was in "Iranian-occupied Iraq", but in a desert that the Iraqis had flooded as they retreated. The Iranians were now advancing on a series of dykes above the waterlogged desert, under intense and constant shellfire from Iraqi artillery whose gunners quickly worked out their trajectories to hit the dykes.

The Iranians provided another army truck for the press, a Japanese open-top lorry with a pile of old steel helmets in one corner that we could wear when we reached the battlefield. Between earthworks and dugouts and lines of trenches we drove, the marching soldiery of the Islamic Republic walking beside us, grinning and making victory signs and holding up their rifles like conquering heroes. I suppose that's what they were, the victims at last overcoming their aggressors, the winners - or so they thought - after so many years of pain and loss.

Over to my left, as we climbed on to a plateau of rock and sand, I suddenly saw the shining white warheads and fuselages of a battery of Hawk missiles, gifts from Oliver North, along with the spare parts which had now turned them into a new and formidable air defence for the victorious Iranian army.

And then we were on the causeway, a long, narrow, crumbling embankment of sand surrounded by lagoons of water filled with still-burning Iraqi tanks, overturned missile launchers, half-submerged Iraqi personnel carriers and dozens of bodies, some with only their feet protruding above the mire. Far more fearful, however, were the whine and crash of incoming shells as the Iraqis directed their artillery on to the dykes. I squeezed the old Russian helmet the Iranians had given me on to my head.

In front of us, an Iranian truck burst into pink fire, its occupants hurling themselves - some with flames curling round their bodies - into the water. The convoy backed up and our lorry came to a halt. We would hear the splosh in the water beside us as the next shell hit the lagoon, sending a plume of water into the sky, cascading us with mud and wet sand. Ian Black of The Guardian, one of the sanest reporters with whom one could go to war, was sitting opposite me on the truck, looking at me meaningfully through his big spectacles. "This," he said, "is bloody dangerous." I agreed.

Around us, on little hillocks amid the great green-blue lakes of water, Iranian gunners fired 155mm shells towards Basra, shouting their excitement, throwing their arms around each other. The young Iranian boys did not even bother to keep their helmets on amid the shellfire. They lounged around the earthworks of the captured Iraqi front lines, smoking cigarettes, hanging out their washing, waving good-naturedly at us as the Iraqi artillery rounds hissed overhead. The explosions even made them laugh. Was it contempt for death or merely their reaction to our fear.

Another big splosh and Black and I hunched our shoulders, and sure enough there was an eruption of water and earth behind me and a downpour of muck and brackish liquid descended on us. The shells came five at a time, zipping over the breakwaters. On a similar trip a few hours earlier, the British correspondent of US News and World Report had summed up his feelings under fire along the dykes with eloquent understatement. "I don't think," he said, "that I could take more than a day of this."

The road surface was only a few feet above the water but the causeway seemed to stretch out to the crack of doom, a dwindling taper of sand that reached a horizon of fire and smoke. The strap of my helmet suddenly snapped and it slid off my head and bounced onto the floor of the truck. I picked it up and stuck it back on my head, holding it on with my left hand. But what was the point? If I was hit on the head, my fingers would be chopped off.

Black was frowning. We were all concentrating. The idea of instant death was indeed a concentrating experience. And all the while, the army of boys and elderly volunteers and Revolutionary Guard commanders tramped past us in the sun as we ground slowly towards the battle front. "War till victory," they kept screaming at us from the mud. Would I never hear the end of this? And when we had driven for perhaps three kilometres along those earthworks and reached and passed Shalamcheh, the ghastly Mazinan suddenly appeared beside our truck, pointing in a demented way towards the north-west. " Basra," he kept shouting. "BASRA! BASRA! BASRA!"

Black and I peered through the smoke and flames and the waterspouts that were now rising eerily around us, volcanic eruptions that would carry the dark-brown mud high into the sky, where it would hover for a second before collapsing on us. Black was looking at me again. A bit like The Cruel Sea, I said stupidly. "Much worse," he replied. Mazinan was obsessed. " Come, come," he kept ordering us, and we crawled up to an embankment of mud that physically shook as the Iranians fired off their 155s from the waterlogged pits behind me.

I peered over the lip and could see across an expanse of bright water the towers and factory buildings of Basra's suburban industrial complex, grey on the horizon, silhouetted for the gunners by the morning sun. A mob of boys stood around us, all laughing.

"Why be afraid?" one asked. "Look, we are protected. Saddam will die." A few hours earlier, Saddam Hussein had declared that the causeway here would be turned into a "furnace" - Black and I had a shrewd suspicion he meant what he said - in which the Iranians would perish. Yet this boy's protection consisted of just one red bandanna wound tightly round his head upon which was inscribed in yellow God's supposed invocation to destroy the Iraqi regime. Good God, said God, I remembered God saying in John Squire's poem, "I've got my work cut out."

Nor was the First World War a cliché here. With at least a million dead, the battle of Fish Lake was the Somme and Passchendaele rolled into one but with the sacrifice turned maniacally cheerful by Mazinan and his comrades. One small boy - perhaps 13 or 14 - was standing beside a dugout and looked at me and slowly took off his helmet and held a Koran against his heart and smiled. This was the "Kerbala 5" offensive. And this boy, I was sure, believed he would soon be worshipping at the shrine of Imam Hossein.

It was, in its way, a sight both deeply impressive and immensely sad. These young men believed they were immortal in the sight of God. They were not fearless so much as heedless - it was this that made them so unique and yet so vulnerable. They had found the key, they had discovered the mechanism of immortality. We had not. So he was brave and laughing, while I was frightened. I didn't want to die.

The mudfields around us were littered with unexploded bombs, big, grey-finned shark-like beasts which had half-buried themselves in the soggy mass when the Iraqi air force vainly tried to halt "Kerbala 5". " We are winning," a white banner proclaimed above a smashed dugout whose walls were built with empty ammunition boxes and shell cases. Who could doubt it? The Iraqis had five defensive lines before Basra and the Iranians had overrun the first three. The Iraqi T-72s that had been captured by the Iranians were being dug back into their own revetments but with the barrels traversed, firing now towards Basra.

Mazinan claimed - truthfully - that the Revolutionary Guards had won this battle, that the regular Iranian army provided only logistics and fire support, that Iraq had lost 15,000 dead and 35,000 wounded, that 550 tanks had been destroyed and more than a thousand armoured vehicles. But the Iranians, I unwisely protested, were still a long way from the centre of Basra. Mazinan's eyes widened behind his giant spectacles. "Come," he said. And I was propelled by this idiotic giant - who was in reality rather too rational when it came to religious war - towards another vast embankment of mud. We struggled towards the top of it. And down the other side.

It was the third Iraqi line and we were now in front of it. Bullets buzzed around us. I remember thinking how much they sounded like wasps, high-speed wasps, and I could hear them "put-putting" into the mud behind me. Mazinan clutched my right arm and pointed towards the pillars of black smoke that hung like funeral curtains in front of us. "Do you see that building?" he asked. And through the darkness I could just make out the outline of a low, rectangular block. "That," Mazinan cried, " is the Basra Sheraton Hotel!"

The Iranians were using their artillery at three times the Iraqi rate of fire, the muzzle flashes streaking out across the water. Still the boys and the bearded old men lounged along the causeway, sometimes playing taped religious music from loudspeakers. Back on the truck, Black and I looked at each other. Brent Sadler and a crew from ITN had been taken to view a pile of Iraqi bodies in a swamp churned up by shells. "Very dangerous but I've got no option," Sadler told me with just a twinkle of death in his eye. 'It's television - you know, we've got to have pictures." Sadler would survive, he always did. But Black wasn't so sure. Nor was I.

"We would like to go now," I hollered at Mazinan. He raised his eyebrows. "Go," Black shouted at him. "We want to go, go, go." Mazinan looked at us both with something worse than contempt. "Why?" he roared. Because we are cowards. Go on, say it, Fisk. Because I am shaking with fear and want to survive and live and write my story and fly back to Tehran and go back to Beirut and invite a young woman to drink fine red wine on my balcony.

Mazinan nodded at the driver. Then he raised his right hand level with his face and closed and opened his fingers, the kind of wave one gives to a small child. Bye-bye, bye-bye, he said softly. He was mimicking the mother taking leave of her babies. And so our truck turned left off the dyke and chuntered down a long causeway towards the ruins of Khorramshahr.

In a factory warehouse, a thousand Iraqi prisoners were paraded before us, including Brigadier General Jamal al-Bayoudi of the Iraqi 506th Corps, who described how the Pasdaran and the Basiji clawed their way through swaths of barbed wire 60 metres deep to reach their third line of defence. The Iraqis half-heartedly chanted curses against the very Iraqi leader for whom they had been fighting only a few days before. Several smiled at us when the guards were not looking. One of them muttered his name to me. "Please tell my family I am safe," he said softly. "Please tell them I did not die."

I returned from the battle of Fish Lake with a sense of despair. That small boy holding the Koran to his chest believed - believed in a way that few Westerners, and I include myself, could any longer understand. He knew, with the conviction of his own life, that heaven awaited him. He would go straight there - the fast train, direct, no limbo, no delays - if he was lucky enough to be killed by the Iraqis. I began to think life was not the only thing that could die in Iran. For there was, in some indefinable way, a death process within the state itself. In a nation that looked backwards rather than forwards, in which women were to be dressed in perpetual mourning, in which death was an achievement, in which children could reach their most heroic attainment only in self-sacrifice, it was as if the country was neutering itself, moving into a black experience that found its spiritual parallel in the mass slaughter of Cambodia rather than on the ancient battlefield of Kerbala.

I would spend days, perhaps weeks, of my life visiting the cemeteries of Iran's war dead. Less than a year after the capture of Fao - the offensive that was supposed to lead Iran into Basra and then to Kerbala and Najaf - I was standing in the little cemetery of Imam Zadeh Ali Akbar on the cold slopes of the Alborz mountains at Chasar, where they had been preparing for the next Iranian offensive. The bulldozers had dug deep into the icy graveyard and there was now fresh ground - two football pitches in length - for the next crop of martyrs.

The thin, dark-faced cemetery keeper was quite blunt about it. "Every time there is a new Kerbala offensive, the martyrs arrive within days," he said. "We have three hundred already over there and 12 more last week. The graves of ordinary people we destroy after 30 years - there is nothing left - but our martyrs are different. They will lie here for a thousand years and more."

His statistics told a far more apocalyptic story than might have appeared; for Chasar - distinguished only by an ancient, crumbling shrine - merely contained the war dead of one small suburb of north Tehran.

* Extracted from 'The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East' by Robert Fisk, published by 4th Estate on 3 October, £25. To buy the book at the special price of £22.50, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897, or visit www.independent booksdirect.co.uk

* Read more exclusive extracts from The Great War for Civilisation all this week in The Independent