'Saddam is the devil himself'

Once, Nafna Mohammed fought to defend Iraq from its enemies. He served almost 20 years in Saddam Hussein’s army, and was twice wounded during his nation’s bloody eight-year conflict with Iran. But now he can’t wait for the day when the United States rains bombs and cannon-fire down on the country he once called home.

"Every Iraqi knows that the US declaring war on their country is the only way to get Saddam out," says the former lieutenant-colonel, who now lives on Scotland’s east coast. "Yes, some Iraqis will die. But Saddam has been killing his people for years. So to those who are demanding that George Bush does not declare war on Iraq, I ask this question: what is your solution to help the 25 million people of Iraq?"

And Mohammed wants to do more than watch the US troops invade Iraq - he wants to stand shoulder to shoulder with them when they do. He is among around 70 officers who have defected from the Iraqi army in recent years to seek asylum in European countries while lobbying for democracy in Iraq.

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Joining forces as the Iraqi National Coalition Military Alliance (INCMA), they have offered to be guides and interpreters for the US military should its troops invade the land they once defended.

The Americans have already given more than 50 million to the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based confederation of Iraqi groups opposed to Saddam. And earlier this month US officials confirmed that up to 3,000 Iraqi exiles will train for war in Iraq at an American base in Hungary. Against that background, Mohammed and his associates in INCMA want the Pentagon to accept their offer to join an invasion force.

He has no concerns about the reception he and the US troops would receive.

"The Iraqi soldiers will lay their weapons down," he says. "They will welcome the Americans as saviours. In the west people say Iraqis see the US as evil. But it is Saddam they regard as the devil himself. The people of Iraq pray for someone to rescue them from the evil of Saddam. Who will help them if not the US?"

A triumphant return to Baghdad would mark the end of six years’ exile from the land whose regime Mohammed came to hate. Now 46, he grew up in a small town in central Iraq, the son of a postmaster. He was conscripted into the Iraqi army in 1980, trained as an officer, and was dispatched as a lieutenant to an infantry battalion as Saddam prepared for war with neighbouring Iran.

"In 1980 the people of Iraq liked Saddam, the army was loyal to his cause," he says. "Iran had undergone an Islamic revolution, and Iraqis feared Ayatollah Khomeini would try to bring his revolution to Iraq. This was a real fear. Iraq was a westernised country, Saddam was the man who would save us from becoming a country ruled by Islamic law."

Mohammed was wounded twice during the ensuing conflict - his right arm was permanently disabled by an Iranian bullet in 1982. Amid the fighting, he says, he saw the worst of what Saddam’s arsenal offered.

"At Basra we were told that we must put our gas masks on, because something special was going to happen. Saddam was using chemical weapons on Iran. A battalion behind us fired it. We heard it go overhead. A chemical weapon has its own sound - it lands with a dead thud, no explosion. But the Iranians had intelligence information and had gone away.

"We were glad. Even the Iraqi soldiers felt Saddam had gone too far. But otherwise the army was loyal and very good - good officers, motivated soldiers, great weapons, a disciplined and effective force."

But it was not effective enough to defeat Iran. Later in 1988 the UN negotiated a cease-fire, and Mohammed says the Iraqi populace was happy to embrace peace.

It was not to last. In 1990 Saddam sent his elite Republican Guard into Kuwait. "I was in my barracks in Basra having breakfast," says Mohammed. "One of my soldiers rushed in and said: ‘Have you heard the radio news? Saddam has invaded Kuwait.’ I looked at my fellow officers. We were amazed. We said ‘What is Saddam thinking of? Why take us back to war?’ Suddenly all the officers were talking openly of their doubts about Saddam - they had been too terrified to speak out loud before."

For the army it was only the beginning of their disillusionment. Fearing Iran might go to Kuwait’s aid, Saddam declared that he would abide by the Algiers accord of 1975, signed by Iran and Iraq, which outlined the long-contested national boundaries in the Shatt al-Arab waterway which divides the two countries in the south.

The fight over the water rights was a key issue in the Iran-Iraq war, with Saddam famously ripping up the Algiers accord for the TV cameras in September 1980. Now, ten years later, and after eight years of war, Saddam was telling Iraq he would abide by the Algiers accord after all.

"We felt so cheated," says Mohammed. "We lost a million Iraqi lives in the war with Iran fighting over that agreement. Young men died - my own cousin had died. And for what? For Saddam that was the beginning of the end."

When the US liberated Kuwait weeks later, it took just 100 hundred hours to overcome Saddam’s soldiers. "One of my friends was commanding a battalion of 600 men. When the US invaded all but eight of them picked up their guns and went home. The eight left surrendered. We thought the US would finish Saddam off for good, and they were happy about that. But we were wrong."

Instead the Iraqis were left with a dictator prepared to use any weapon to keep power. The years that followed the Gulf War have brought more misery for the people of Iraq. Many say UN sanctions have robbed Iraq of food and medicines and caused untold suffering to a population which struggles to survive on state rations. Others, including Mohammed, say Saddam, not the UN, is to blame for the pain of the past ten years.

"Saddam is keeping food and medicine away from his people, and blaming the US, so that they will hate America. Iraqi people know this and that is why they hate him."

In 1991 Saddam crushed an uprising in the south. Infamously, he used chemical gas in the town of Halabja in 1988, killing more then 5,000. It was Saddam’s willingness to destroy the enemies within his borders which, Mohammed says, led him and other officers to flee Iraq.

In 1996, while commanding a battalion in northern Iraq, Mohammed received orders to join another infantry division fighting rebel forces near Baghdad. "I knew this battalion was killing my own people," he says. "I could not leave the army - if I had tried, Saddam would have had me killed. I went home to my wife and said that it was time to leave Iraq. It is such a terrible place to live under Saddam that she did not protest."

Within two weeks he had organised an escape. His wife and three young daughters travelled north in a lorry posing as Kurds visiting relatives in the mountains. A week later, he and a friend walked three hours over the border into Kurdish territory, past soldiers he had served with.

"I shaved my eyebrows, my moustache, wore civilian clothes. My friend and I carried a load of animal fat, which we said we were going to sell to the Kurds. We promised to give the soldiers some of the money we would make selling the fat when we came back, if they would let us through. But I never came back."

Mohammed has now been a refugee in Scotland for five years and will soon be eligible for citizenship. They have a fourth daughter who was born here. But before he becomes a citizen of his adopted land, Mohammed wants to do one final duty for the land of his birth.

He believes Iraqi opposition forces in exile are in clandestine communication with the army in Iraq, and that its soldiers are indicating that should the US invade, the Iraqi army is ready to desert Saddam.

"I want to go into Iraq with the US troops, and tell my people that they are saved," he says. " I want to kiss the ground. I want to be there when the Iraqis lay their weapons down and the US rescues my people from Saddam."

Exiles from tyranny

BRITAIN is home to many Iraqi exiles, the first of whom were Jewish people who arrived in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1980s, the costly eight-year long Iran/Iraq war brought another wave of exiles, an event repeated following the Gulf War. Today Iraqis represent the biggest group of people seeking asylum in the UK and of Iraq’s population of 19 million, it’s estimated that more than four million are in exile.

Saadi Yousef

Iraqi poet Saadi Yousef is considered to be one of the country’s leading writers. Born in 1934 in a village in the Basra area, he’s spent almost 25 years in exile, and has often wrote about his home and his longing to return there. London-based, the writer is also known for his commitment to furthering the cause of democracy and modernisation of Iraq. Yousef left Iraq in 1979, not long before Saddam took power, and he had previously been imprisoned several times on charges of being a Communist. He lived in various countries including Algeria, France and Yemen before settling in the UK and has said his art has been fuelled by memories of his homeland.

Haifa Zangana

Iraqi-British novelist and painter Haifa Zangana has lived in the UK since 1976, having been imprisoned and tortured under the Iraqi regime - a period she has documented. Writing about her experience in the UK, she has said "Once in London, I could hardly believe I was safe in a democratic country. The day that I first exercised my right to vote was one of the happiest of my life." Zangana has also spoken out about the effects the Gulf War and international economic sanctions had on the ordinary people of Iraq and has been critical of the current plans for further military action against her homeland. She was one of the signatories of an open letter to the press, distancing herself from the members of the Iraqi National Congress.

Ahmed Chalabi

Leader of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam, Chalabi is an exile in London. The businessman founded the Iraqi National Congress (INC), ten years after the Gulf War, and still leads it from his Knightsbridge headquarters.

His hatred of Saddam’s regime is widely known. He has said: "I am not a candidate for anything. I want to live in Iraq and to see my children grow up there."

Kanan Makiya

A long-term critic of Saddam’s regime, Makiya risked his life and that of his family to write about Iraq and has since lived in the US and London. Leaving Iraq in the late 1960s to study architecture in the US, Makiya hit the headlines two decades later on publishing The Republic of Fear, a scathing attack on his homeland, written under a pseudonym. At the time of writing, the US was backing Iraq in the Iran/Iraq War, prompting Makiya to continue writing about Arab politics in The Monument and later a novel, The Rock. Today The Republic of Fear has become a bestseller.

Nadhmi Auchi

A regular feature in the Sunday Times Rich List, Auchi ranked 13th last year with 1,200 million. Now a British citizen, the Iraqi-born businessman has dropped a few places on the list due to his involvement in the Elf-Aquitaine scandal, which rocked the French establishment. Prior to the Gulf War, Auchi had a lucrative trading relationship with Iraq, and is said to have more than 1 million of assets frozen in the country. Having arrived in Britain in the early 1980s, he has refuted any links to the current regime - two of his brothers were murdered under it.