Kuwait, April 7: A convoy of the US Army passing through a village near An Nasiriyah last week stopped abruptly when an Iraqi accompanying the troops jumped out of a truck and ran into the arms of another man standing by the roadside.
“It was an emotional scene,” recalls Colonel Martin Stanton, spokesman for the civil affairs brigades in the US Army. “This man was meeting his brother after 26 years.”
In another encounter, this time in the port town of Umm Qasr, another Iraqi rushed to a poster of Saddam Hussein and tore it to shreds with a knife in minutes.
These are stories told here in Kuwait by US Army officers about men who make up the “Free Iraqi Forces”.
America’s own Iraqis, expelled or hounded out in Saddam’s regime, the “Free Iraqi Forces” are now being re-imported into Iraq in the rear of American combat units. They help the Americans track down Baath Party members, act as interpreters and write leaflets.
The role of the “Free Iraqi Forces”, said to comprise Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, has increased in the absence of the rebellion that American forces expected to stoke against Saddam. Now, nearly three weeks into the war, American and British forces are able to produce television images of troops being welcomed by those who are beginning to believe that a regime change is imminent and inevitable.
The US Army is taking squads of the “Free Iraqi Forces” with it into battlezones that have been through the worst of combat. The forces are attached to the army’s civil affairs units. About 70 “Free Iraqi Forces”, Colonel Stanton says, are now in and around Nasiriyah.
The “FIF” was formed in the US in August last year. It comprises Iraqis who fled Saddam’s regime and are now returning to “restore democracy”.
Its members wear a distinctive “FIF” tag and each is armed with a 9 mm revolver “for self-defence”. Many of them were settled in the US and in other countries. “They have been brought here straight from training in Europe and have been integrated with the US forces,” says Stanton. The FIF volunteers were trained in Hungary under a US Army programme called “Task Force Warrior”. “Task Force Warrior” will ultimately cover 3,000 FIF volunteers.
Primarily, says Stanton, their brief is to assist in the humanitarian efforts of the civil affairs units that are part of the US Army.
The role of the civil affairs wings of the US Army — there are two brigades in action — is quite nebulous. Stanton describes its job as “applying a band-aid to a local wound”. They are uniformed men and women, part of the regular army, whose brief it is to take humanitarian aid to the war-hit.
This is the largest deployment of civil affairs ‘forces’ with the army in more than half-a-century, says Stanton.
“In no way have we restored south Iraq to its pre-war standard as yet,” he says. “We give emergency care. Our main contribution is that we are gaining the confidence of the population.”