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Bulldozers have taken the place of tanks in the devastated Iraqi peninsula town of Faw where some of the fiercest battles of the Persian Gulf war were fought.

Construction workers' tents occupy spaces fought over by Iraqi and Iranian troops in a series of running battles that forced Tehran's forces back across the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the last bloody months of the eight-year war.Shell-pocked buildings and cratered roads scar this outpost where Iraq has mobilized an army of workmen to make good the destruction in this war-shattered town at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf.

Ali Mohsen, an Iraqi soldier posted to Faw before last August's ceasefire came into effect between Iraq and Iran, said when he first arrived in the town, the sound of exploding shells echoed through the ruins.

"Now the roaring thunder of construction equipment is disturbing the peace," he said.

Faw fell into Iranian hands in February, 1986, after a nightime surprise attack across the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway, which divides the two countries' borders at the head of the Gulf.

Revolutionary Guards poured across submerged pontoons secretly constructed by military engineers.

Fighting continued for 42 days as Iraqi forces fell back from Faw, only managing to hold their lines near the Umm Qasr naval base to the north as Iran's supply lines became overextended.

Iraq says 52,000 of its soldiers and 120,000 Iranians were killed in the battles around Faw, which it recaptured after a spectacular, two-pronged thrust by heavy army and infantry early in April, 1988.

The successful Iraqi assault on Faw gave a major psychological boost to Baghdad's army, which after early successes in the war had a reputation as a defensive rather than an offensive force.

Military observers described the 1988 battle for Faw as the turning point in the war.

Baghdad said the town's recapture was the key to later military operations which expelled Iranian troops from Iraqi territory and forced Iran to announce its acceptance of the U.N.-brokered ceasefire in July last year.

The official Iraqi media refers to Faw as "the town of sacrifices and the gate for victory."

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said this week that the rebuilding of Faw and Iraq's moribund, war-shattered southern port of Basra, on which $3.2 million had already been spent, proved Baghdad wanted lasting peace with Iran.

Celebrations to mark the start of reconstruction in Faw Sunday were canceled following the death in a Paris hospital of Michel Aflaq, the founder of Iraq's ruling Baath party.

On the Iranian side of the war debris-strewn Shatt, civilians are now returning to their devastated border city of Abadan to start a similar process of reconstruction.