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Iraqi exiles in Jordan return to homeland to battle U.S. forces

AMMAN, Jordan—A long row of battered taxicabs lined a street Friday in downtown Amman, waiting to carry eager young Iraqi exiles home to battle.

Emboldened by news accounts of Islamic militiamen fighting U.S.-led forces, many Iraqis said they were keen to replenish the uprising that's left hundreds of their countrymen and at least 42 coalition troops dead since last Sunday.

Shiite and Sunni Muslims, age-old rivals, taunted one another about which sect was punishing the Americans more.

"You always boast about what's happening in Fallujah," a young Shiite man shouted to a Sunni. "But look what we're doing in Karbala and Najaf!"

Mostly Sunni Fallujah has long been a hotbed of resistance to the occupation. Najaf, a Shiite holy city in southern Iraq, is where radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is believed to be holed up against the Americans. His Mahdi Army militia has captured parts of or entire southern cities, including the holy city of Karbala, and continues to fight American forces street-by-street in several areas.

New recruits in Amman crammed food and clothing into orange-and-white Iraqi taxis Friday in a quarter of the Jordanian capital known as "Iraqi Row." Hundreds more Iraqi men gathered after Friday prayers to trade news about the bloodshed and say goodbye to friends who'd pooled their money for a $300 ride to the battle. About a dozen cabs loaded up in the course of an hour, each with three or four recruits.

"I want to fight," said Mohsin al Maamuri, 31, who was packing supplies into a car bound for the southern Iraqi city of Hilla. "I've spent two years in Amman, and I planned to stay longer. I even bought furniture. But when I saw the pictures on TV this week, I had no choice. I have to go join the Mahdi Army."

Other exiles were unsure whether the time was right. Some pointed out that the militias were losing ground and joining the cause meant certain death. Others were proud of the essentially occupation-free zones the guerrillas had established, especially around Shiite shrines.

More than 460 Iraqis have died in this week's fighting, most during clashes in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. Death tolls are uncertain in the south.

"I'm so excited by what's happening," said Mohsin Shaani, 35, who's from the southern town of Samawah. "I'm ready to leave today, but I couldn't get a car until tomorrow. I'll give my life to fight the American occupation."

Each Friday, drivers arrive at the Iraqi quarter with bags full of letters from home. Lucky recipients rip open envelopes to get dispatches from loved ones whose phones still don't work.

Mohammad Khazal, a 30-year-old college student, waited in vain Friday for a letter from his parents in Nasiriyah, where al-Sadr's troops overwhelmed Italian forces and won control of most public buildings this week.

Several of Khazal's Iraqi classmates left Amman to join the Mahdi Army, but he refused to go. He disparaged al-Sadr's supporters as thuggish militants.

"My friends feel they have to join the resistance, that this is the time," Khazal said. "But it's not the suitable time and this is not the suitable way. I was shocked that such a small group can overtake whole cities. Where were the police? Where were the Americans?"

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

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