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Iraqis in Jordan eager to return home to defend families, pride

AMMAN, Jordan—Four busloads of Iraqi men left this city Tuesday for their homeland to join the fight against American-led invaders, a sign that U.S. and British forces may face opposition from ordinary Iraqis as well as from supporters of Saddam Hussein.

Few of the men said they were interested in keeping Saddam in power. Instead they talked about fighting for their communities, their families and their pride. They said they would not join the Iraqi military but would use their personal weapons to fight Americans.

"Our country is more important than money, even though I was making good money," said Salah el Mehdee, 37, a native of the southern Iraqi city of Nasariyah who came to Jordan three months ago.

"How can we stay here while everything is happening?"

Jordanian officials said 4,330 Iraqis have returned to Iraq in the last 10 days, 429 in the last day. In contrast, no Iraqis fled to Jordan as refugees since the war began.

Although the numbers may not seem large, they underscore the growing sense of pride and admiration that is being expressed in this Arab capital for the way Iraqis have so far resisted American and British troops. Some analysts suggest that the return of Iraqis to their homeland also portends difficulties for the United States as it attempts to take control of Iraq and install a new government.

"I was so happy and so surprised," said Rowan Hajar, 18, a student at Jordan University. "I respect the Iraqis a lot more. They are the only Arabs who carry their heads high."

In Amman, the Jordanian capital, people speak proudly about Iraqi reports that two farmers shot down a U.S. Apache helicopter and express admiration for the guerrilla fighting being waged in Nasiriyah, Basra and Umm Qasr.

Mukhtar Aziz, 34, the manager of a store for bed and bath linens in Cairo, said the stiff Iraqi resistance didn't surprise him. "The Iraqi is defending his land," he said. "It's the opposite of the American soldier—he doesn't know what he is fighting for."

The Iraqis "will never accept the fact that Americans are there for the liberation," said Ibrahim al Qasi, 35, a restaurant owner in Amman's Iraqi community, who also questioned American motives. "No Arab will accept this."

"I don't think this is about the liberation of the country. It is about a personal vengeance passed from Bush Senior to Bush Junior," he said, referring to the first President Bush's decision not to try to topple Saddam after the Gulf War in 1991.


Even those who predict a U.S. victory say they are impressed with the Iraqis. "We will be still humiliated," said Rami, a 19-year-old Jordanian student. "I am happy that this time it will not be easy."

More than 400,000 Iraqis live in Jordan. Many came after the Gulf War a decade ago. It is a very transient Iraqi population that often comes in search of jobs, not political asylum. Most have families in Iraq. Many say that to stay outside their country and not fight with their countrymen would be dishonorable.

"It is our job to fight," said Jalawi Fajr, 28, as he boarded a bus.

The Iraqi Embassy, which must issue the returning Iraqis' travel documents, keeps a book filled with photos of those returning home. Tuesday, about 100 men waiting for their documents outside the embassy broke into a spontaneous chant and demonstration. Many spoke of the honor that comes with dying for the country.

"I would rather die in the cold than at a refugee camp,'' el Mehdee said.

The Iraqis also seemed undeterred by the difficulties in getting home. El Mehdee said he learned Thursday that two friends who had left for Iraq last week were killed by a missile as they tried to get to Nasariyah. The men said they also understand that taxis and other transportation will go only about 50 miles into the country and that they will have to walk or find a ride the rest of the way.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-VOLUNTEERS