Sunday, November 28, 2004

Iran war generation at vanguard of "new Iraq"

Reuters | Latest Financial News / Full News Coverage: "Iran war generation at vanguard of "new Iraq"
Sun 28 November, 2004 04:15

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Former guerrilla leader Ahmad al-Khafaji watches from his sixth floor office at the Interior Ministry in Baghdad as young U.S. soldiers patrol the compound under a scorching sun.

"Where do you think these American kids would rather be? In the United States or on the filthy streets of Iraq? They are here to help us until we recover, regardless what you hear on the Arab media. And the majority of Iraqis realise we need them," said the 55-year old major general.

Khafaji belonged to the Iraqi officer corps who fought in the 1980-1988 war with Iran. He defected and then returned to Iraq after last year's invasion to lead counter-insurgency efforts.

The former exiles, shaped by a war with Iran that killed up to a million people, are respected and will be influential in shaping the country as Iraqis seek leadership. They are at the vanguard of advocating human rights and the rule of law, and have a surprisingly consistent view about the "new Iraq".

Most are opposed to a Saddam Hussein-style centralised state dominated by intelligence operatives, and believe that a continued U.S. presence could help Iraq's recovery, as it did Germany and Japan after World War Two.

Khafaji says the war with Iran made him increasingly disgusted with Saddam's leadership. He cannot forget the horror of the fighting, including mowing down Iranian boy soldiers.

Many who defected after the Iran-Iraq war say they grew to detest the ideologies of both Saddam and Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

After defecting Khafaji led operations against Saddam's forces in Iraq's marshlands and in the Kurdish north.

"My generation of exiles has sacrificed everything to build a pluralistic society. Even if the elections bring a devil worshipper as president, my duty is to serve him," said Khafaji, a member of the leadership council of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The party was founded in Iran in 1982 by Mohammad Baqer al- Hakim, killed by a car bomb last August.

U.S. and British officials privately praise efforts of Supreme Council and Dawa Party activists from Khafaji's generation in bringing peace to cities like Basra.

Their approach is practical, perhaps because they have seen the consequences of ideologies like Baathism and Khomeinism. Khafaji, who is now a senior interior ministry official, says the dominance of a single ideology in government will not be repeated.

NATIONALISTS

Most of the Iran war generation oppose Baathism and extreme Islam, but are staunch Arab nationalist.

They remember with pride that Iraq sent troops to Palestine in 1948, and tanks and fighter jets to help shield Syria and Egypt from defeat in the 1973 Middle East war.

They pour scorn on "brother" Arab states for failing to help stop infiltrators and spreading propaganda which they say encourages attacks on Iraq's infrastructure and civilians by portraying them as heroic.

Another dissenter who returned to Iraq to assume a senior position in the government is Saad al-Obeidi, who once directed the country's psychological warfare programme.

He was imprisoned for several months after the 1991 Gulf War for criticising the performance of the army.

Obeidi expected the war to topple Saddam to be straightforward, but cautioned that the religious hatred and mistrust that the ousted president helped sow among Iraqis would be hard to overcome.

"People are less honest and trust has further eroded after the war. The state could not play a role to mend the situation because it has been absorbed by security."

UNEXPECTED PROBLEM

In exile, Obeidi worked with Tawfiq al-Yassiri to found an officers' movement committed to separating the army from politics in the post-Saddam era.

Yassiri was wounded when Iraqi helicopters attacked his forces during a 1991 uprising against Saddam in southern Iraq.

The grandson of one of the leaders of the 1920 uprising against British rule, Yassiri says real strength means respect for human rights.

"The war taught us wisdom. Saddam, driven by sectarian hatred, wanted to destroy as much of Iran as he could. He also destroyed Iraq," he said.

OLD FOES

The exiled officers who turned against Saddam have found themselves rubbing shoulders with those in their generation who remained loyal.

The United States and the interim government have hired Baathist loyalists in the new intelligence and security forces.

One former exile was astonished that a Saddam operative who once tried to kill him had returned to a senior post in the new intelligence directorate. The defectors feel that hiring ex-Baathists is a practical necessity but say the government has gone too far.

"We are disappointed that bad elements were hired," said Yassiri. "They must be tried and expelled.""

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