Far from home, Iraqi exiles train to rebuild their nation
By Brian Whitmore, Globe Correspondent, 03/31/2003
IN HUNGARY TASZAR AIR BASE, Hungary -- Tariq and Walid fled Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Now, with a new conflict raging in their homeland, they're both heading back there.
The two exiles are among scores of volunteers the US Army has been training to help US forces administer and deliver humanitarian assistance to a postwar Iraq. The group, called the Free Iraqi Forces, will work with the US military as translators, guides, and liaisons with the local civilian population and humanitarian organizations.
With Washington at odds with the United Nations and European allies over who would administer and rebuild Iraq, the training program illustrates how far the United States is prepared to go to assure that it wins the peace even as it continues what could turn out to be a protracted war. The program is also an example of the niche contributions that former communist nations of Eastern Europe are making to the US-led war.
And with bombs raining down on Baghdad, and US and British troops battling Saddam Hussein's forces in the Iraqi desert, volunteers call the training program, held on a former Warsaw Pact MiG base 120 miles south of Budapest, an opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream of returning to Iraq.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime to see my country free," said Tariq, 48. "I am honored to be a part of it." For security reasons, the US military has requested that volunteers' last names be withheld.
Tariq, a Kurd, was in the Iraqi military during the first Gulf War, although he was not involved in combat. After the war, he went AWOL and joined the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq, fled to Turkey where he helped run supplies to rebels, and eventually was sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court. In 1992, he was granted political asylum in the United States.
As he watches the current war unfold on television, he says he can't wait to return home.
"I wish I were in Iraq right now," Tariq said, dismissing fears that a post-Hussein Iraq would descend into instability and conflict among Kurds, Shiites, and Sunni Muslims.
"Once we get rid of Saddam, Iraq will be stable from north to south," Tariq said.
"I am 100 percent confident that this is going to happen and we are going to go back and live in our country."
While Tariq was helping the 1991 Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq, Walid, a native of Basra, was joining up with Shiite Muslim rebels in the south. He managed to avoid reprisals after the rebellion was brutally suppressed. He escaped to Yemen in 1995, suffering a gunshot wound in the process, when he fled from the oil tanker he was working on. He was granted political asylum in Germany.
"The regime will be gone and I want to participate in helping my country," said Walid, who also is 48.
Tariq and Walid graduated from the four-week training program Friday. Participants, ranging from 19 to 60 years old, will ship off to the Persian Gulf soon, although the US Army, citing security concerns, will not say where or when. An earlier group of volunteers finished training earlier this month and are already in the Gulf.
The Army also will not disclose the number of volunteers participating in the program, although press reports citing Hungarian officials say about 100 Iraqis have trained so far.
The Hungarian government earlier this year gave the US Army permission to train as many as 3,000 volunteers at the base.
The decision sparked some controversy as opposition politicians and residents said the base could become a target for terrorist attacks.
The program is financed by the Iraqi Liberation Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1998. The legislation allocates $97 million to assist Iraqi opposition groups, although military officials said they did not have an exact figure for the cost of the training program.
US military officials say the Iraqis will not be involved in combat operations, but will play a key role in helping the military coordinate postwar reconstruction and humanitarian aid efforts. They will wear their own distinctive uniforms, and carry a pistol for self-defense.
"The graduates will have tremendous value," said Major General David Barno, who is commanding the training program. "Their local knowledge and language skills, combined with what they learned here, will be invaluable to humanitarian and civil relief organizations."
During the four-week course, the volunteers learn battlefield survival skills including navigation, nuclear and biological weapons defense, marksmanship, first aid, and the laws of war and human rights. They also study civil-military operations such as processing refugees, distributing humanitarian aid, and rebuilding infrastructure.
In a makeshift classroom with maps of Iraq on the wall, Major Alva Lee Cook explained to a group of volunteers how to assess local medical needs when providing humanitarian aid. "How many hospitals do they have? How many beds do these hospitals have? How many doctors and nurses are there?" Cook said to a group of Iraqis, who listened intently and took notes.
Many anti-Hussein Iraqis have said they lost faith in the United States when it urged them to rise up after the 1991 war, but then did not provide enough support afterward. Tariq and Walid say they are sure that this time will be different.
"Let's forget the past," Tariq said. "Let's start something new."