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Iraqi soldier resigned to fighting U.S. again

AMMAN, Jordan—Khaled Jamal was a front-line soldier when Iraq invaded Kuwait a decade ago, and now he's been called back to active duty to prepare for what his superiors believe is a certain American invasion.

Tall, swarthy, the father of six, Jamal is a corporal in the Iraqi reserves. In recent days he he's been visiting Iraqi friends and relatives who live in neighboring Jordan. But he's been given two weeks to get back to Baghdad and back into uniform.

"I have to go back to fight, to defend my family and my country," he said Wednesday, sitting barefoot on a carpet in a friend's home and sipping a glass of strong, sweet Jordanian tea. "Iraqi people are used to war. Kids who were 5 years old in the Gulf war are now soldiers. They're ready to fight."

Jamal's willingness to go home to fight what most experts consider a hopeless battle against a superior American force casts doubt on the contention of some in the Bush administration that the Iraqi people will greet invading U.S. troops as liberators. While many Iraqis might be happy to see Saddam Hussein pushed from power, many others remain staunchly nationalistic and hostile to American attempts to install a pro-Western government.

Jamal, 34, an infantryman who as a teenager fought in the Iran-Iraq war, said he knows the Iraqi military is no match for American firepower. If there's a war, he said, he's sure that he and his countrymen would lose.

"But we'll do our best, and we'll use all our weapons," he said, emphasizing the word "all" but adding that he doesn't think the Iraqi arsenal includes weapons of mass destruction.

Baghdad does not seem tense or fearful, Jamal said. The government recently doubled rations of foodstuffs and household staples. Some say the increases are meant to help citizens stock up before hostilities break out, others say they're meant to curry favor with a restless public.

"I like Saddam, and people naturally follow the leaders of their countries," he said. "Look at Bush. He won the election with fewer than 50 percent of the votes, but Americans are still following him because he's their leader. Saddam is OUR leader."

Since the Gulf war, Jamal has been activated three times, mostly for specialized training, including drills for chemical and gas attacks. "American gas," he said. "Of course."

While in Amman, Jamal has been staying with a childhood friend, Fadal Mohammad, an accountant who fled from Iraq to Jordan two years ago. Mohammad, originally from Baghdad, is one of an estimated 300,000 Iraqi refugees who have poured into Jordan in the 11 years since the Gulf war.

The Jordanian government is worried that hostilities in Iraq could lead to a huge and immediate exodus of new refugees. Thousands of fearful Iraqis are said to be massing at the main border crossing, trying to bribe or sneak their way into Jordan. The official price of an exit visa has reportedly zoomed from $5 to more than $200.

Mohammad Adwan, Jordan's Minister of State for Political Affairs and Information, said Thursday that his government "won't allow huge floods of refugees."

"We simply can't absorb them," he said.

Fadal Mohammad, who is single, left Iraq to make more money, and perhaps to make his way to Europe. His government-regulated salary in Baghdad, he said, was $5 a month. In Jordan, as an exporter of rugs, he makes $1,000 a month.

"It's Saddam who has destroyed the Iraqi economy, not the (U.N.) sanctions," said Mohammad. "Saddam spends everything on weapons."

If Jamal and Mohammad have very definite and very different opinions about the Iraqi leader, the two old friends seem to have agreed to disagree. For example, when Mohammad calls Saddam "a man of terror," Jamal manages a pained smile but says nothing.

"I love my country but I hate the regime," Mohammad said. "There's no freedom. Saddam controls things by violence. He used chemicals against the Kurds; every child in Iraq knows this by heart. But no one can say a word against him on the street."

And when Jamal tells about Baghdad's recent scheme to create the special Army of al Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem)—6 million civilian and military volunteers who have pledged to attack Israel if so ordered—Mohammad also manages a pained smile but says nothing.

Perhaps Jamal and Mohammad don't argue because they know they might not see each other again: Jamal is being activated, war seems certain, and this time, after surviving two previous wars, perhaps his battlefield luck will have run out.

"We have no fear, and we're ready," Jamal said. "But we also know if war does come, devastation will come, too."


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): soldier