Murphy's Law: April 9, 2003

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Arabs throughout the Middle East have been dismayed by television images of American tanks rolling through Baghdad and some have been stupid enough to sign up for a holy war against coalition forces. Reporters across the Middle East have chronicled a wide selection of rhetoric from 20-30-something year old Arab men, who cannot or will not believe that the coalition plans to rebuild Iraq and turn it over to a legitimate self-elected government, once Saddam's supporters have been defeated. Their motivations vary, although many claimed that they were volunteering to sacrifice themselves for jihad (or holy war) to defend  Arab lands, not necessarily to support Saddam. While a lot of the quotes may be cases of 'playing for the audience', the flow of self-styled fighters is noticeable.

There have been some Iraqi expatriates on the buses crossing the border who are engaged in a "reverse exodus", but their exact motivations are unknown. According to a media interview with a Jordanian  colonel tracking exit visas at the Karama border post, more than 5,200 men have left Jordan for Iraq over the past two weeks. About 400,000 Iraqi exiles live in Jordan alone, most of them illegally. While most of the returnees are probably going home to move loved ones out of harm's way or even exploit the opportunities of a Free Iraq, others are surely spurred by a misguided patriotism and religious wrath to quit jobs and abandoned somewhat secure lives to take up arms for Hussein and Islam. 

Expatriates aren't the only ones heading to Baghdad to fight coalition forces. Iraqi government representatives claim that 'volunteer's are coming from all over the world, including places as far away as South Africa and Brazil. Responding to the call of "Jihad", they seem themselves as "Mujihadeen" in the same vein as those who fought the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. The Mahdi of Sudan whipped up the same sort of fervor, but it isn't unique to the Middle East - the same blindness to the realities of warfare was seen among the eager volunteers at the beginning of World War One or America's Civil War. 

But 21st century is can be even more of a meat-grinder for volunteer militia than the great wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. Elements of the 1st Marine Division fought a 10-hour battle with hundreds of Arab fighters southeast of Baghdad on April 4. They were ambushed twice, and there were four suicide car bombings against tanks. Contact was initially made with 150 black-clad fighters, but by the end of the battle about midnight, 300 to 400 had been killed. 

The Islamic "freedom fighters" came out to fight by the busload. A marine battalion commander told the press that his men fought with bayonets in marshes just outside Baghdad, against a force of Jordanians, Egyptians and Sudanese who had been "given a rifle and told to become a martyr". Prisoners later reported that there were Saudis and Syrians, as well as other unnamed nationalities (Lebanese, Palestinians, Algerians and Moroccans have been cited). There were nine Marine casualties, including two killed.

Most are believed to be passing through Syria, which the United States has accused of supporting terrorism and more recently, assisting the Iraqi army. The Syrian government counters that it is aligning itself with the Iraqi people against "illegitimate and unjustified aggression." Haitham Kilani, Syria's former ambassador to the United Nations, said that it was "only natural" for volunteers to be crossing his country's long border with Iraq. Syrian officials have tried to discourage media coverage of the volunteers' existence. One enraged Syrian official tore up one reporter's notes and accused the journalists of "seeking to harm the country and its reputation", when he noticed them interviewing the volunteers. 

Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and other Arabs from countries as far as North Africa and Europe have converged in Damascus for the overland journey to Baghdad. The Iraqi Embassy in Damascus has refused to confirm that it has been arranging trips to Iraq, but the press reported that an embassy employee mistook a recent caller inquiring about a visa to Iraq for a volunteer fighter. The Iraqi embassy employee told him to go wait for the buses at the Iraqi trade center in downtown Damascus. 

So how many untrained 'volunteers' with AK-47s and RPGs would coalition forces be facing? It's impossible to give a precise headcount, but a few thousand would be a reasonable guess. On April 1, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said that more than 6,000 volunteers had reached Iraq from the Arab world (but official Iraqi statements are invariably exaggerations).

A 35-year-old Syrian laborer named Mohammed, a thin man with an overgrown beard, is going to Iraq to perform what he says is a religious duty - holy war against the American invaders. "The Americans have come to occupy Muslim land. I am going to fight them and I will not stop at anything".

Meanwhile, a merchant named also named Muhammad approached troops of the 2nd Brigade 101st Airborne in Kerbala. Among other topics, he pled for mercy for the remaining fighters. "These people who are fighting, they come from Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt, they are in a wrong situation. They told them in Syria and those places that the Americans were destroying buildings, killing people and children. Saddam and his helpers told them Americans are killing Iraqi people. They get guns, and they are fighting America. Please don't kill them, get them a chance to live. Catch them, put them in prison. We want peace and quiet." 

Hopefully, the majority of these volunteers will lose their taste for semi-formal battlefield suicide after a few more bloodbaths like those the Marines dealt out. Otherwise, there will just be a pointlessly large Arab death toll that won't affect the fall of Baghdad. USMC Corporal Mark Hylen was unemotional about shooting dead the armed man running towards him. He told a reporter that "it didn't feel like much. He was shooting at me. Screw him. He died." - Adam Geibel

 


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