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Iraqi national guard members reluctant to fight Mahdi Army

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Just three weeks after rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's forces blew off his legs with a homemade bomb, Capt. Saeed Majeed returned to duty to set an example for the men he commands at an Iraqi national guard station in one of the deadliest districts in Baghdad.

After American allies accidentally killed two popular Iraqi platoon leaders in a fight with al-Sadr's militia, it was Majeed who persuaded his troops to end their strike over the incident. And it was Majeed who consoled his outgunned and outsmarted men after a 20-year-old guardsman died recently in yet another vicious street battle with al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Last week, however, Majeed found his leadership tested when neither his pleas nor his commands could stop a stream of deserters finally giving in to Mahdi Army threats or their personal misgivings about the standoff between al-Sadr and U.S.-led forces in the southern holy city of Najaf. An elite group from the fledgling Iraqi national guard is in Najaf, preparing to storm the sacred Imam Ali shrine if al-Sadr continues to occupy it.

The deployment to Najaf prompted the most desertions since April, when dozens quit over a similar standoff with insurgents in the western town of Fallujah, according to Iraqi defense ministry officials and military officers. Once again, they said, they are faced with the problem of persuading Iraqis to fight Iraqis.

"They have fears of fighting their own people," Majeed said. "Every soldier is different in this type of situation. Some of our guys couldn't cope, they just couldn't continue. And if they ordered us to go to Najaf, I'm sure there are lots who wouldn't go."

Iraq's caretaker government won't release figures on how many troops have deserted rather than serve, with the U.S. military never far away, on the front lines of the country's guerrilla war. Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim Shaalan played down the issue at a news conference Thursday, insisting his troops are "ready for action and they are ready now. ... Their morale is high."

Majeed tells a different story. He said 20 of his 140 guardsmen have quit recently at the district headquarters on the outskirts of Sadr City, the massive Shiite ghetto that provides recruits and support for the firebrand cleric. Another 18 are on leave because of threats against their families, while the ones who are sticking out the uprising have been promised promotions and bonuses.

Many of these young men are filled with conflict and seek guidance from Majeed, a former major in Saddam Hussein's army. They find a commander as torn as his men.

"If they ask me to fight in Najaf under an Iraqi authority, I might go. But let's be real—it's not Iraqis who are in command right now," Majeed said. "I try my best to win my soldiers' trust. Right now, though, the psychological level of our troops isn't where we want it to be. The Mahdi Army has threatened them, gone to their houses, warned their families."

Respect for the slim, 38-year-old captain is evident when he calls for his crutches. Recruits salute and offer him their shoulders instead. Using a prosthetic leg, Majeed hopped through the halls of the station last week, past memorial photos of guardsmen killed in action, past the windows blown out from five recent mortar attacks, past signs for "Black Dragon" and "Thunder," the American-style nicknames the troops have given different platoons.

Each day, American soldiers visit the station to advise their Iraqi counterparts. They deliver supplies, share intelligence on the insurgency and help toughen up recruits who come from the same hardscrabble neighborhoods as the masked insurgents waiting for them in alleyways with grenade launchers.

Friendships are forged among Iraqis and Americans, yet there is still a collective sigh of relief when the U.S. troops leave each afternoon. "When the Americans are here, we expect an attack at any moment," said Lt. Maad Mohamed, 43. "But what can we do? We know we need their power, their force, their sophisticated weapons."

On the day he lost his legs in the explosion, Majeed recalled, American medics treated him in the field and then delivered him to a local hospital where even doctors and nurses had posted photos of al-Sadr. Hospital staff patched him up, he said, but their unabashed loyalty to the Mahdi Army forced him into a humiliating decision. He called a U.S. commander to intervene.

"He had to come to the hospital and order them to take care of me," Majeed said. "He told them, `This guy is from the Iraqi national guard and I hold you responsible if he's not treated well.' He also put two guards outside my door."

Whispers of "mercenary" and "agent" filled the hallway outside his hospital room. Finally, Majeed opted to check out and receive house calls from a private doctor. He eventually took out his own stitches, bandaged his bloody stumps and returned to work, where his troops stood at attention as he rolled in by wheelchair.

"It was like a birthday, like I was born again," Majeed recalled.

Back at the station, at least, Majeed was among comrades who share his desire to serve Iraq and his shame of being labeled a U.S. collaborator. All the guardsmen arrive for work in civilian clothes to conceal their jobs from their neighbors. After receiving threats, many take elaborate steps to convince the Mahdi Army they've quit.

When the latest al-Sadr uprising broke out in early August, their fears escalated. They were ordered to retake control of police stations seized by the militia. Soon after, Majeed said, some of his most seasoned guardsmen stopped showing up for work.

Though troops at the station don't expect to be deployed to Najaf, they must still fight the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, where insurgents have lined the streets with hidden bombs and daily gun battles fill the local hospital with the wounded.

At the station last week, several recruits stood outside Majeed's office, debating their predicament. Some said they don't consider al-Sadr's militiamen true Shiites and have no problem facing them. Most, however, said they would turn in their guns rather than fire at familiar faces.

"The Mahdi Army is, after all, Iraqi," said Sgt. 1st Class Emad Ali, 26, who comes from Sadr City. "These are my cousins, my uncles, my brothers. This is not an enemy. This is family."

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

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

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