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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

In Rural Iraq, Villagers Prepare to Fight Their Way

Families egged on by ruling party say they'll battle U.S. in their front yards if need be.

March 11, 2003|Sergei L. Loiko | Special to The Times

ABU-SERWIL, Iraq — In this village 20 miles north of Baghdad, the talk these days is about just one topic: war with the United States.

Men from the district flock to the local mosque on Fridays to beg God to prevent war. Or if not, to give them victory. Under their fathers' proud gazes, boys who have not yet reached puberty are learning to assemble and disassemble their families' precious firearms.

For Nahzan Khalifa Jamil, a bulky man with a Saddam Hussein-style coal-black mustache, victory means that even if he died, the invaders would be stopped in his front yard from advancing into Baghdad.

"My task is to stop them here, to prevent them from entering our village and my house," says Jamil, 40, a truck driver and father of seven boys and two girls.

This determination to fight is organized by Iraq's ruling Baath Socialist Party, which tells the villagers where to dig trenches and when to show up for twice-weekly shooting practice. Such training apparently is taking place across much of Iraq as the government prepares to rely heavily on popular militias in addition to the regular army.

Wearing a black robe and a traditional red-black-and-white head scarf, Jamil smiles, baring even rows of shining white teeth, when he has a chance to show off his children's preparedness to fire at the U.S. soldiers he expects to come this way from the north.

His 12-year-old son, Hathem, with curly black hair and flushed cheeks, runs into the house and emerges with the family treasure: a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle with a fully loaded clip. Jamil leaps toward his son, grabs the gun, detaches the ammunition clip, clicks the bolt, points the barrel skyward and pulls the trigger to make sure there are no stray rounds before giving it back to the boy. He performs the operation with the expertise of a former drill sergeant. For his sons, ages 10 to 18, he still functions as drill sergeant.

"I taught all my sons to handle the weapon and shoot when they turned 10," Jamil says. "Now all of them can put all the bullets into the target on the target range, and some of them hit it in the center."

As his father speaks, Hathem zealously takes apart the empty assault rifle, puts it back together, aims at a white-and-black cow standing a few yards away near their shed, pulls the trigger and then raises the gun victoriously with one hand while making a V sign with the other. His brother Luay, a tall and lanky 15-year-old, snatches the rifle in a fit of envy and starts fiddling with it. He too seems to know what he is doing.

Jamil leaves the boys to their favorite toy, puts the clip in his pocket and points to a pit, about 4 feet deep and 10 feet square, in front of the family's sprawling single-story house. He says they dug it so they can hide if there is bombing.

"Once they start bombing, the party promised to tell us where to dig the trenches," Jamil says. "We will fight until we run out of bullets. And then we will fight the enemy with knives, sticks and stones."

Still holding the Kalashnikov, Luay joins his father.

"My father told me if he is injured in the fighting, I should not pay attention but continue to shoot at the enemy until we kill all of them," he says. "I want to be like my father. I have never seen anyone in the village shooting better than he does."

There are about 150 houses in this community of 3,000 people. They are arranged in clusters of three or four amid fields of green spring grass and patches of mud. Hundreds of men and boys in the village are taking part in war preparations, urged on by their imposing mullah, Hamed Abdulaziz Sheik Hummad, 51. The rotund cleric, dressed in a white turban with a red top and sporting an immaculately trimmed beard, tells them to prepare to turn their houses into fortresses.

"We don't want this war imposed on us by the Americans and Jews," the cleric says in an interview. "But if we have to fight, everybody will fight -- men, women and children. All the men and most boys over 10, and many women in these parts, know how to use guns. And they will not run away."

Many in the village say they intend to stay and fight. Thirty-one people live in the house of Ali Hommadi. Five sons and seven grandsons among them know how to handle weapons, he says.

They, too, eagerly display their arms-handling skills, turning their demonstration into a kind of family festival. It ends with Hommadi's wife, Haber, 64, clad in black and imposingly large, taking the revered weapon away from the boys and brandishing it high over her head as she dances and chants, "Saddam, your name will shock America!"

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