“Defending their country”

Two Britons born in Iraq explain their reasons for joining the insurgents loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

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The two young men sitting cross-legged in a small room off the courtyard of the Imam Ali shrine looked like any of the fighters around them.

Their beards were short and neat, their feet bare and their dress the simple dishdasha, the Arab robe. They were deferential to their militia commander and spoke idealistically of defeating the military might of America in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf.

But both were from London, the first Britons known to have joined the Mahdi army, one of the most prominent fighting groups in the Islamic insurgency that has gripped Iraq in the year since the invasion.

Though the two men were born in Iraq — one in Najaf, the other in Baghdad — their families took them to England as children. They went to school and college in the capital, picked up strong London accents and British passports, and finally returned to the country of their birth for the first time on Monday.

Their sole aim: to fight a “jihad” with a ragtag Shiite militia loyal to the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi army and its allies have staged violent uprisings across southern Iraq and are now battling the U.S. and British armies and the Baghdad government.

Neither would give his name, but the elder, a confident 23-year-old, used the nom de guerre Abu Haqid (father of fury). He said he had studied English and worked in a supermarket. The younger, quieter man — his 21-year-old nephew — called himself Abu Turab (father of dust, the connotation of death). He had been studying to be a computer teacher.

The pair had traveled secretly into Iraq in the past few days, via a “not legit” route, according to Abu Haqid.

They had talked to others in London about coming out to fight. “Some said they would wait and see what happens to us,” he said. “We told them ‘our brothers are fighting down there, they are not eating well, they are not sleeping well, we have to be in the same place as them, the same position as them.’”

They had the support of their families, Abu Haqid added: “It is our religion and our families can’t stop this thing. We all have a belief, me and my family, when it comes to jihad. We asked our families and they said yes. It is good to protect your country and be there with your brothers.”

For the first two days the pair were to be trained to use the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles that most carry, as well as BKC machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

“They are training us how to use the weapons and how to move quickly when we move,” said Abu Turab. “We are going to complete our training and soon we will start fighting.”

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On their first night they were handed a BKC machine gun and sent out into the Valley of Peace, the vast, ancient graveyard to the north of the old city of Najaf that has become the frontline of the latest six-day uprising.

“They taught us how to use the gun — it’s simple at the end of the day. I didn’t see any Americans. They were very far away,” said Abu Haqid. “It was good fun, actually. It was dangerous but we have our belief.”

Sadr’s militiamen are mainly fighting from the alleyways of the old city, using old weapons and no body armor. They face a force of thousands of U.S. Marines, backed up by tanks, armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters.

Asked where they slept at night, Abu Haqid said: “We believe Najaf is a holy city, so wherever you are in it you will just chill out and sleep.”

“There is no salary,” said Abu Turab. “The food is simple, no barbecues or anything. Just a simple sandwich of bread and nothing else. But we believe that if you see your brothers  and someone is killing them and it is not fair, then you have to stand with them and support them, in Palestine or any place.”

The pair said they wanted to come to Iraq to fight as soon as the U.S. invaded last year. “They were wrong to come to our country. They said they came for chemical weapons and they didn’t get permission from the U.N., so they attacked Iraq for no reason,” said Abu Turab.

“It’s pride, my friend. It is pride,” said the other. “If someone wants to step on your head, I don’t know if it would be accepted in Europe or England.”

They planned their trip for months and when Sadr emerged as a powerful leader after organizing a series of uprisings in April, they decided to volunteer to join his force. “Bush said ‘you are either with us or against us,’” Abu Haqid added. “We had to decide either to be with him or against him, and we are against him definitely.”

Both were at pains to point out their disapproval of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network and insisted their presence in Sadr’s militia did not amount to terrorism, because they were fighting against uniformed soldiers.

“Bin Laden and his group are totally against our belief, killing innocent civilians,” said Abu Haqid. “Killing innocent people we cannot do. That is terrorism; this is defending your country.”

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