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New Iraqi army backed by U.S.

Mohammad Abdullah worked with the U.S. government to build an Iraqi special forces unit.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 24, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Now that the United States has routed the old Iraqi army, Americans might be surprised to learn the Pentagon is helping build a new Iraqi army.

It even has a general -- Mohammad Abdullah.

"We have to start from zero," Abdullah said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "We have to call some of the people we knew from the regime who were kicked out of the army, and approach some of the soldiers who were not part of the Baath Party guys."

Abdullah was a brigadier general in Saddam Hussein's forces, but fled in 1990 because the regime suspected him of plotting with the United States to kill the Iraqi leader. From exile in Jordan, he organized an opposition group that was involved in an unsuccessful 1996 coup attempt against Hussein. Some 4,000 people died, including three of Abdullah's sons.

Fearing the regime would try to kill him, too, Abdullah left Jordan and went to the United States, where he organized opposition inside and outside Iraq. After George Bush was elected president and it became clear Iraq would be a target, Abdullah worked with the U.S. government to build up a small special forces unit, he said.

Dubbed "Scorpion," it fought in the western Iraqi desert during the war and was the first unit to capture an Iraqi general. Abdullah entered the southern city of Najaf on April 5 and came to Baghdad on Saturday.

Here he is one of several opposition figures who have returned from exile and are vying for influence in postwar Iraq. The most prominent is former banker Ahmed Chalabi, a Pentagon favorite but a man thought to have little support inside the country.

Abdullah said he has never met Chalabi but criticized wealthy exiles who operated out of "five-star hotels in London."

"The sad thing is, everybody is presenting himself as a leader. Iraqis have to select their own leader. ... I have a big following but I don't see any with him (Chalabi)."

Abdullah said his own organization has at least 50,000 adherents in Baghdad, and bases of support throughout the rest of the country.

The Iraqi Free Army Council, as it is called, is working with the 5th U.S. Army Special Forces Group. The temporary headquarters is a small palace with an interesting history.

Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Gen. Hussein Kamel Hasan al-Majid, in charge of Iraq's weapons program, defected and went to Jordan in 1995. Incredibly, he returned to Iraq and was killed within a week by Hamed Fadal. To show his appreciation, the Iraqi leader gave Fadal the two-story palace, or so the story goes.

Located near a huge monument to Hussein's self-proclaimed victory in the Iran-Iraq war, the palace escaped looting in the current conflict because the area was quickly sealed by U.S. troops. So Abdullah and his associates dine on a table made of heavy cut glass, sit on furniture upholstered in silk and walk on marble floors covered with Oriental rugs.

Abdullah said he doesn't know what happened to the previous occupant, who has disappeared like most of Hussein's top people. As for Hussein himself, "I believe he is still alive, but I'm not sure if he's here or outside."

One goal of the Iraqi Free Army is to find and arrest leaders of Hussein's Baath Party.

"This party is like a cancer. They have money and organization. If we don't get rid of them we will be in trouble."

The Free Army will help provide security, power and water to Baghdad's 5-million residents. In the chaotic aftermath of war, Iraqis are more worried about their daily lives than they are about the makeup of a future government, Abdullah said.

"Most people live on salaries and they didn't get paid in March and there's no sign of payment now. We have to find a way to pay them -- that will make everybody happy and it will help the security situation."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at .

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