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Iraq

Iraqis in Jordan look toward home

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2003


AMMAN, Jordan -- At the Iraqi consulate here, the air is thick with cigarette smoke and patriotic fervor.

Since the U.S.-led war against Iraq began a week ago, at least 3,100 Iraqis working in Jordan have applied for travel papers to go home and take up arms against American and British forces.

"We are going to fight because foreigners are invading our country," said Bakir Eli Kazim, 33, one of dozens of men who jammed the consulate office Tuesday.

The allies' superior firepower doesn't deter him: Kazim survived the 1991 Gulf War, in which he served as a commando in the Iraqi army, and "I'm not afraid."

Despite the war, the border between Jordan and neighboring Iraq remains open. Iraqi men have been boarding buses for Baghdad in the past few days, although it's unclear who is paying: The Iraqi consulate says it is not.

As many as 500,000 Iraqis live in Jordan and fall into two distinct groups. One is made up of political exiles -- generally writers and other intellectuals -- granted refugee status because they feared for their lives if they stayed in Iraq. They publicly condemn Saddam Hussein and support the war.

A second group consists of Iraqis like Kazim, who left his wife and three children behind when he came to Jordan 18 months ago to find work. Publicly at least, they support Hussein's regime because they don't want to jeopardize their loved ones' safety.

But many Iraqis -- like millions throughout the Arab world -- see the allied forces as invaders rather than liberators.

"I'm proud to go fight," said Haider Hadi, 32, whose family has remained in Iraq while he worked here as a security guard. "We don't accept them in our land -- we will accept them only with our bullets."

Hadi plans to arm himself "with whatever I can find." Most Iraqis have guns, he said.

Many of the Iraqis working in Jordan entered the country illegally and have no passports. As several waited Tuesday to get travel documents, they disputed allied claims that thousands of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered.

"They say the Shiites are against Saddam and supporting America," said Karim El Iraqi, 31, an ironsmith. "But 70 percent of the people here" -- he swept his arm around the room -- "are Shiites and for sure they are against Bush and with Iraq."

Those surrendering could not be soldiers, added Mohammed Hashim, 39, "because they are very clean and in good shape. That shows they are civilians -- a soldier who is fighting cannot be in such clean clothes."

The Iraqis also scoffed at the allies' military strength.

"They cannot even keep their hands on the small town of Umm Qasr," one said, to a round of laughter.

The men agreed on another point: that American and British forces are alienating the Iraqi people with every bomb dropped and cruise missile fired.

"Even if they win militarily, all the people are against them," said Hadi, the guard. "If everybody is against you, you have to lose."

* * *

It looked more like a demonstration in Canada than in Jordan.

Just before an antiwar rally Tuesday afternoon, a frigid mix of hail and snow began beating down on the city. It quickly turned into a mini-blizzard that covered streets, palm trees and and protesters with half an inch of snow in barely 20 minutes.

"Having this fall on our heads is better than B-52 bombs," said Abu Mustafa, 68.

Snow is rare in Jordan, which has a dry, desert-like climate except in the mountains to the north. Tuesday's freak weather was caused by the same system that kicked up sandstorms in southern Iraq, hundred of miles away.

Despite the inclement conditions, 150 to 200 people marched a mile chanting anti-U.S. and anti-Israel slogans. One demonstrator set fire to an American flag, but snowflakes quickly extinguished the flames.

Protesters also shouted, "Saddam! Iraq! We give our blood for you!" and carried banners that said "No U.S. troops in our land."

Given enormous public opposition to the war, King Abdullah has pledged that no U.S. planes will use Jordanian airspace to strike Iraq. But there are hundreds of American troops here, ostensibly to man Patriot missile batteries to defend Jordan against attack.

Since the war began, there have been numerous antiwar rallies, and scores of police and soldiers were on hand Tuesday in case this one turned violent.

Among the journalists covering the protest was a reporter from a major Canadian newspaper. She was hatless and wore only a thin coat.

"I thought it was going to be warmer here," she said.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com .

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