Up in Arms in Baghdad
Friday 09 May 2003
Remnants of Iraq's Forces Battle U.S. Indifference to Problems
BAGHDAD, May 8 -- A squat, bald Iraqi army colonel named Salem Yassin screams in deafening rage, trying to be heard over a sweaty mob of military men. They've come to stage yet another protest, one of many that unfold daily here as Iraqis loudly exercise their newfound rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
"If the American government will not solve our problems, the Iraqi Army will fight and we don't care if half of them die," shouts Yassin, one of a desperate crowd of about 100 men who've been gathering for days in front of the looted and shuttered Air Force Officers Club near the city center. "We cannot wait for a long time. We can all organize again -- as suicide attackers or whatever."
They're not against American occupation, the officers insist, but they will no longer tolerate what they view as humiliating indifference. They demand their salaries and pension payments, which some say they haven't received since February. They demand a city with clean drinking water and reliable electricity.
"This is not the result we deserve," says Lt. Col. Ali Maedi, who identifies himself as a tank commander for the Army's 5th Division. During the war, he says, he rescued a wounded American soldier "with my own hands." Now he's ready to reconstitute his unit to fight again "within five days."
If this goes on for a couple of more weeks, Bara Kamel, an engineer who built guided missiles for Saddam Hussein, warns an American reporter, "you will create terrorists."
The men at the Air Force club, where a statue of an Iraqi fighter pilot stands triumphantly atop the debris of an Iranian jet downed during the Iraq-Iran war, debate what to do next. Some say they must press their case with a show of strength. Many want to march immediately on the headquarters of retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, the administrator of reconstruction and relief operations here.
A retired Baghdad police lieutenant named Sabih Azzawe, clad in a plaid shirt and narrow tie, climbs atop a packing crate and tries to calm things down. "People are starving," he says, "but our dignity will not let us come begging."
He advises them to postpone any march. It's too dangerous for military men, even if they're out of uniform and unarmed, to swarm without warning on U.S. troops.
The protesters say many soldiers under their command refused to fight when U.S. forces conquered Baghdad a month ago. But they're angry at the American officials in charge of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, based at one of Hussein's palaces on the Tigris River. They've been too slow in reaching out to supporters in the military and public sectors. Why can't Garner come to us, they demand. We're military officers, just like him.
The bald colonel is screaming again at full blast. "We refuse to get rid of the army or reduce it! We will defend the future of our country!"
Azzawe, 58, who used to investigate homicides, counsels patience. We need to find a way to let Garner and his people know that we want to help him, that we support democracy, he says. We need a leader, another retired officer says, someone to give us orders. In a spontaneous voice vote and show of hands, the protesters decide to elect Azzawe, even though he's not a military man.
Azzawe says he's been trying to meet Garner and other U.S. officials for weeks. He kept telling every American soldier he could find that he had "important information" to bring to the military, but got mired in a bureaucratic maze.
Come to my neighborhood in Dora, he says, and you'll see this evidence for yourself. "I found missiles there."
So this evening, he guides a Washington Post reporter and a photographer through a dust-blown residential section of town whose most distinctive features include huge, undeveloped lots whirling with trash and a sprawling Christian seminary founded by Chaldeans. Partially hidden behind a wall near the seminary's dormitory are five white missiles, about 30 feet long, still on their mobile launchers. The line of missiles stretches more than a hundred yards.
Locals identify them as armed surface-to-air missiles. They say they've seen other SAMs and Al Samoud missiles, and even more war machinery, stockpiled inside the seminary's now vacant dormitory.
Be careful, Azzawe and his neighbors say. The whole place is mined. Several people have died or been wounded in these fields after stepping on land mines, Azzawe warns.
So we do not attempt to enter the building, which sits adjacent to a large, barren field. Some people are living in huts in the middle of the field. Nearby, on a paved street, local youths organize a soccer match. They dart occasionally into the field to fetch their ball.
A man named Abu Allowi, wending his way carefully past the missiles with his young son, says, "They were brought in at the beginning of the war. Many of them were fired from here."
What appears to be mobile radar equipment is also in plain view outside a 10-foot-high concrete wall that rings the religious compound.
"I have tried to tell the Americans that even though Saddam is gone, the danger to them is still here," Azzawe says. "You have to control the army, and it is not under control."
Neighborhood men present a military folder they say they found here. It identifies the Iraqi forces as belonging to a tank unit in the Republican Guard's 2nd Division.
Azzawe inspects the folder and says, "Now do you believe the commander you met who said he could gather tanks and weapons in a matter of five days?"
As a group of small children draws closer to greet the journalists, the ex-cop frantically tells them to get away. Let's leave now, he says. "We're going to be the reason if people get killed by the mines."
At his house, Azzawe displays a yellow petition seeking American help and signed by 76 men who put down both their names and ranks. "Many more wanted to sign but we ran out of time," he says.
He hands over a flier, in Arabic, that his followers composed and distributed this morning. He asks, "Can you get this to Jay Garner?"
The flier says, "Attention, all Iraqi Army members. On Monday May 12 at 10 a.m. We are meeting at the Air Force Officers Club. Then we are marching to the U.S. military headquarters, to solve the problem of our salaries and our rights and also to discuss the future of the Iraqi Army."
It will be a "peaceful march." At least that is the plan as of today.
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