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Iraq's fresh `Freedom Fighters' a mix of West, East, young, old

AT AIR BASE 71 IMAM ALI CAMP, Iraq—Abdul Hamid Salman traded his cab in Phoenix and a $2,000 monthly salary for a rusty Cuban-made Kalashnikov rifle and a chance to mold a post-Saddam Iraq.

"I want Iraq to be as democratic as America," said Salman, 51, a smiling, white-bearded man who looks more like a professor than a soldier.

He is one of about 700 Iraqi fighters of the U.S.-funded Iraqi Freedom Forces who hope to become the nucleus of a new Iraqi army that will rebuild law and order. But so far, hope is about the biggest weapon they have.

At this remote former Iraqi air defense base outside Nasiriyah, cashiers, butchers, grocery clerks and taxi drivers are taking a crash course in the art of war.

They are as young as 18 and as old as 55. About half come from the United States, Britain, Iran, Norway, Canada, Jordan and a handful of other nations. A few came with their children.

Some have missing teeth and grizzled beards. Others have pot-shaped bellies and puff cigarettes as drill sergeants bark orders.

"They are not the Wehrmacht," said Zaab Sethna, a senior adviser to Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, referring to the German military of World War II. "But their motivation is high, their energy is high."

The Iraqi Freedom Forces are the military wing of the Iraqi National Congress, one of six groups vying to lead a new Iraq. Chalabi, a London banker, stays in a damp warehouse on the base, along with his Harvard-educated daughter, Tamara, and aides.

After a recent patrol in a neighboring village, joyful fighters surrounded Chalabi and sang: "There is blood in our souls. We will redeem you Dr. Chalabi."

The fighters are funded under the Iraq Liberation Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998, and are under the command of Gen. Tommy Franks. The U.S. military feeds and clothes the fighters. About 200 U.S. Special Forces and other soldiers train them in the use of small weapons and advise them on which missions to take.

They earn $150 a month, though none have been paid yet.

Having spent most of the war on the sidelines, they arrived here about a week ago from northern Iraq on an American C-17 airplane—well after the U.S. forces took Nasiriyah in the most ferocious battle of the war.

"We tried to get involved earlier, but the U.S. ignored us," said Col. Ahmed Izzet, 38, a former Iraqi soldier. "Then when they find they need us, they let us come. That's always American policy."

In a post-war Iraq, the United States is trying to avoid appearing as an occupying force. U.S. Special Forces soldiers also train the Iraqi Freedom Forces, a name created by the Pentagon, to take an increasingly visible role manning checkpoints and controlling public disturbances while the U.S. military slips into the background.

"If we'd been involved in the war from the beginning, we could have avoided more casualties," said Izzet. "We could talk to people, even (the paramilitary) Saddam Fedayeen, and say `don't be stupid by playing a losing card.' "

But it is the pursuit of democracy that convinced many fighters to join.

Salman, the Phoenix cab driver, first fled his native Amara town in 1980 after Saddam's agents tried to force him to join the Baath Party. He went to Kuwait, then Syria, before entering northern Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, where he joined the Iraqi National Congress.

After Saddam bombed the area in 1996, Salman and 7,000 other Iraqi National Congress members received political asylum in the United States.

In Phoenix, where he has lived for the past five years, Salman said he found a new freedom to express himself. He openly discussed the atrocities committed by Saddam's regime with any passenger who would listen.

A few months ago, he flew to Washington, D.C., to join the Iraqi Freedom Forces.

He was supposed to receive training in San Antonio, Texas, but he skipped it because he had other business to take care of, he said. Besides, he said, he spent two years in the Iraqi army between 1970 and 1972.

What he lacks in training, Salman makes up with heart and soul. Today, he eagerly talks to villagers who are skeptical of U.S. intentions in Iraq about his experience in the United States—and tells them the same will soon happen here.

"I tell them you can choose your own leader in your village or city," he said. "And if you're not happy with that person, you will have the power to tell him to get out."

But Salman doesn't plan to settle in the new Iraq. He's gotten too comfortable in the United States, where he wants his 1-year-old daughter to be educated.

"I want to become the mayor of Amara for six months," said Salman, as he set off on a patrol. "Then I want to go back to Phoenix."


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

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