They sat in wheelchairs, watching the soldiers too young to have fought; legless, armless - one man so bereft that his face was misshapen, his head smashed by shellfire. We took pictures of them with embarrassment as they turned in their chairs, the wheels squeaking on the marble floor. One man with a hole in his forehead looked at me without blinking and without words until I put my camera down.
"Saddam learned his lesson from us," Ayatollah Gholamreza Safai told thousands of Revolutionary Guards, air force officers and soldiers and Basij militiamen at Khomeini's tomb. "This was our great victory." And in a way it was: the liberation of Khorramshahr from Saddam Hussein's army, the final storming of the only Iranian city in enemy hands. Every Iranian newspaper is carrying statistics - every figure bar the Iranian dead - to mark the 13th anniversary: 418 Iraqi tanks and 45 other armoured vehicles destroyed, 56 aircraft shot down, 30,000 Iraqis killed, wounded or captured.
The numbers can be contested, but how fortunate for the Iranians, you couldn't help thinking yesterday, that the anniversary of so famous a victory should have fallen now, when a more powerful enemy is at the door and when many Iranian veterans suspect they have been cheated of the fruits of their blood, sweat and tears. There were walking war wounded among the Ministry of Defence officials who were marshalling the Basij men in their drab khaki at the east end of the mosque; perhaps half the older soldiers had fought in the war. And for an hour or so, it was possible to observe the unique blend of pre- and post-revolutionary armies that now defend Iran.
The Revolutionary Guards who led the suicide charges more than a decade ago stood beside soldiers who once served the Shah and then fought for Khomeini's Iran; officers who must have been trained in Britain and the United States stood to attention below a massive portrait of a weeping Khomeini. Army General Ali Shahbazi sat beside the Revolutionary Guards Joint Chief of Staff, Mohamed Zolghadr, as Ayatollah Safai extolled the virtues of Iran's eight-year struggle against Iraq; the representatives of church and state - robed and uniformed on the same dais - had already placed a wreath against the tomb of the prelate who once ordered them to march all the way to the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.
They never made it, but Khorramshahr was theirs back in 1982, albeit with a little sleight of hand from President Saddam. The night before the final battle he decided to abandon the southern city on the Shatt al-Arab waterway which he had promised to turn into a Stalingrad. He ordered his troops to retreat across the frontier, surrendering trenches and fortifications, giving up Khorramshahr, whose name had already been Arabised on Iraqi orders. And we in the West forgot this intriguing history lesson when, nine years later, President Saddam performed the same somersault before the Americans. In Kuwait too he told his army to run after promising a mother of all battles.Perhaps we should have remembered Khorramshahr.
Just as European powers tried last month to recapture the lost post-war spirit of renewal in the nostalgia of VE Day, so Iran is playing its last card of patriotism in the face of darker days. Iranians believe few in the West appreciate the importance of its war with Iraq, along with its million Iranian dead. Acquiring arms - nuclear or otherwise - has become something of a fetish since 1980, when President Saddam, with French aircraft and Russian tanks and US satellite pictures, invaded Iran. So at Khomeini's shrine yesterday, the Iranians put their smartest soldiers on display; well-turned-out naval officers and air cadets and line troops in neatly creased trousers and new tunics.
Save for just a handful, that is. For when the last prayers were called, there came across the marble floor of the mosque the squeak of tyres from the platoon of wheelchairs, all targeted on the shrine, their occupants leaning to one side or hunched over, their blindness shielded by sunglasses, all of them in camouflage fatigues. One by one, they were pushed towards Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb. And there, one by one, the legless and the armless and the blind and the brain-smashed leant forward and touched or kissed the shrine of the man who had sent them to their fate.Reuse content