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Palestinians vow to take dead man's place fighting in Iraq

BURJ EL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon—Relatives say an Apache helicopter gunship killed Thayir Naif Osman on the road to Baghdad before he could take up arms against the U.S.-led forces. But the 29-year-old Palestinian's funeral on Tuesday evening in this refugee camp in southern Beirut spurred hundreds more non-Iraqi Arabs to vow to take his place.

Hoisting Osman's wooden coffin onto their shoulders, young Palestinian and Lebanese men jammed Burj el-Barajneh's narrow roads, waving Iraqi flags, chanting to the beat of a drum and firing off Kalashnikovs in a deafening chorus. The throng spilled into a neighboring suburb, drawing an ever-increasing number of participants into the 90-minute burial procession.

"We are one Arab nation," the crowd chanted.

"On the borders of Baghdad they killed my father," the people said. "I, my mother and my brother will take our revenge."

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been calling on Arabs around the world to join in the Iraqi fight against the Western invaders, and a growing number appear to be heeding the call. Arabic-language newspapers have been chock-full in recent days of stories about volunteers—many Palestinian—going to fight or become suicide bombers.

How many of these volunteers are actually getting into Iraq is unclear. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri has put the number at 5,000, and Iraqi officials around the globe say Iraqis and non-Iraqi Arabs have sought visas to come fight. In Beirut on Monday 36 people, most Lebanese citizens, boarded a bus bound for Iraq.

Abdelbari Atwan, publisher of the pan-Arab Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, described the phenomenon as reminiscent of the Afghan jihad or holy war that eventually forced the Soviet retreat from the central Asian nation in the late 1980s.

Mounir Maqdah, a senior military leader at Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, said the ongoing battle is one foretold in the Quran. "The prophet (Mohammed) said on this day, the men of Baghdad will put women and children behind their backs and they'll fight as men," said Maqdah, who said he issued the call for Palestinians to volunteer before the war began.

But some Lebanese academics and journalists say that the motivation is political, not religious. Palestinians interviewed here said this is a chance to fight archenemy Israel's staunchest ally, the United States. And since nothing happens in Lebanon without Syria's approval, the analysts say, there is little doubt that Arabs crossing into Iraq to fight must do so across the Syrian border.

Osman's remains were returned from Syria, according to relatives and camp officials.

In Denmark, he leaves behind his wife, Iman, 24, and their 3-year-old son, Fadi. Iman's brother, Nidal Shihadi, 26, said the couple had marital difficulties and he's unsure whether his sister knows her husband is dead.

Osman's four brothers returned to the camp to console their parents. His father saw his dead son only three days before the war began. No one in the family had any idea Osman had ever planned to join in the fight, Shihadi said.

During the funeral march, at least a dozen participants held up posters of Osman, with captions identifying him as martyred fighter who volunteered to defend Iraq, a privileged man who died in the name of God. Previously, Osman had been known as a non-religious, disco-loving Palestinian who spent most of his life in Denmark.

Osman moved there when he was 13, after he and relatives were granted asylum on humanitarian grounds. He learned to speak Danish. The unemployed Osman never went to college, Shihadi said, although he had a keen interest in computers.

Danish authorities notified Osman's parents on Monday that their son had been killed. His Danish identity papers were discovered on his body by International Red Cross workers who found the bus that had been attacked last week 125 miles inside Iraq, apparently by an Apache helicopter, the Danes told the dead man's relatives.

How Osman came to be there remains a mystery to his family, but Shihadi said he hopes to take his brother-in-law's place if he can figure out a way to get to Iraq.

"Wherever I end up there is okay," said Mohammed, a Lebanese resident among the 20,000 Palestinians who live in Burj el-Barajneh who watched as a wreath of flowers for Osman's coffin was adorned with pro-Iraqi and pro-Palestinian stickers. "The important thing is I'd be able to fight the American army and kill them."

Thousands of Burj el-Barajneh residents are ready to cross into Iraq, said camp leader Saad Abu Ahmad.

"Young men here already have the inspiration to fight," he said. "Osman's death just reinforces it."

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

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

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