Young men return to join fight against Allies
By Justin Huggler in Amman
[The Independent - 25 March 2003]:
The young men waiting aboard the grubby bus that was taking them home to Iraq were adamant. "We are going back to fight the Americans and the British," one of them said. "We are going back to fight for our homeland."
One of the others added: "If the Jordanians would let us, we would take guns with us now, so we could start fighting them the moment we crossed the border."
The dingy car park in central Amman has become the scene for an extraordinary phenomenon. Every day, young Iraqi men are turning up here to take buses back across the border to Iraq – as many as 500 of them a time, according to the driver of one bus. Perhaps he was exaggerating a little, but plenty of Iraqis are going.
Some 400,000 Iraqis live and work in Jordan. Those who are going back to Iraq are giving up safety to face the bombs. Some are giving up their jobs as well. One young man – there was no chance of getting names from a busload of people going back to Baghdad – said he had lived in Jordan for six years, and feared if he went back to Iraq now he would not be able to get a new Jordanian work permit. But, he said, he was going anyway.
They face a journey that will be dangerous from the moment they cross the border, out in the rocky desert. It is eight hours' drive to Baghdad, along a highway that is already under attack from US and British planes.
The driver of one of the pick-ups that ferry passengers back and forth along the road said it had been broken by bombs in two places, and that he had to leave the road to get through. The pick-up drivers are asking for $1,000 (£635) to take passengers to Baghdad.
And at the end of the road lies a city that has come under ferocious bombardment. But the young Iraqis seem undeterred. "If the Americans want to come to Iraq, they had better bring body bags with them," the most talkative of them said. "God willing, it is the Iraqi people who will win this war." His choice of words was interesting: The "Iraqi people", not Saddam Hussein. None of them mentioned the Iraqi President once.
They were friendly, though they were nervous of talking to a foreign journalist until they were sure their pictures would not be taken.
They are part of an unexpected twist to this war. The refugee camp the Jordanian authorities have allowed to be put up, out in the winds of the desert a short way from the border, and a long way from the cities of Jordan, is empty. Just two Iraqi refugees have come through the border since the war began, according to aid workers, and they had friends to stay with in Amman.
Why no Iraqis have come is not clear. Some of the 500 or so guest workers – Sudanese, Somalis, the odd Egyptian – who have fled Iraq say they believe the authorities are not allowing Iraqis to leave.
But if Iraqis are not coming out, they are going back in. And there were unconfirmed reports yesterday that buses of Syrian volunteers have set off to fight alongside Iraqis against the Americans and British.
One Iraqi who did it make it out of Baghdad was Naji Sabri, the Foreign Minister, who manage to cross the border to Syria in a taxi – quite a coup, considering US and British forces are scouring the routes out of Iraq for senior members of the regime trying to escape.
Mr Sabri, though, was not fleeing, he was en route to an Arab League summit of foreign ministers in Cairo. According to some reports, he left Iraq disguised in traditional Arab dress and had to have a suit made in Syria.
The Arab League issued a declaration yesterday calling for the war to end – unlikely to cut much ice with Washington. But there is an extraordinary anger seething in the Arab world. In Amman, Jordanians walk up to you in the street to tell you how furious they are about the invasion of Iraq.
Across the Arab world, in police states where public protest is rarely tolerated, there have been some of the largest – and most violent – street demonstrations in years.
Four people were killed by police who opened fire on demonstrators in Yemen. Protesters in Bahrain tried to storm the American Embassy. In Cairo, protesters set a fire engine alight, and shouted slogans against the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, for not doing more to oppose the war. You hear the same comments again and again, from different people. "We are supporting Saddam Hussein, not because he is good or bad, but because he is standing up to the Americans" is one. Another is that the Gulf War in 1991 was different, because Iraq had invaded Kuwait, but this time "Iraq has done nothing wrong".
For now, most of the anger has led to little but street protests. But some, like the Iraqis on the bus to Baghdad, are on their way to do something about it.