Muslim volunteers from outside Iraq among the last fighters
DOHA, Qatar — Volunteer fighters from Syria and other Arab lands turned up in surprising places as U.S. troops rolled to Baghdad — and some were still battling for Iraq’s cause after Saddam Hussein’s regime had all but dissolved.
American soldiers found one Syrian in a refrigerator at a presidential residence near the international airport Monday. He said he and six comrades — now dead — had been dropped in and told to fight to the death for the Iraqi president. He said he had chosen concealment over martyrdom.
Two dozen more Syrian fighters appeared Wednesday outside Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, trying to negotiate taxi rides home as U.S. tanks approached and civil authority was breaking down.
Thousands of Muslims have taken part in the battles of other Muslims in foreign lands, including Afghanistan, the Balkans and Chechnya. And Syrians were not the only Arab neighbors who came to assist Iraq.
The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, on the outskirts of the capital, met sporadic guerrilla resistance, much of it from Sudanese, Egyptians, Jordanians and others who had joined the fight.
Shortly before the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan announced that thousands of Arab volunteers seeking martyrdom were flocking into the country and more were expected. Iraq’s state television later said an estimated 4,000 people had arrived.
Foreign journalists were taken to a training camp east of Baghdad to see about 40 people who were described as Arab volunteers. They expressed hatred of America and a commitment to martyrdom in the name of jihad, or holy war. They said they came from Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The Arab volunteers even fought on Wednesday night when Iraqi forces appeared to melt into the city streets. A U.S. infantry company was under sniper fire from buildings in central Baghdad when Iraqi civilians took advantage of a lull and approached to say the snipers were not Iraqis but Yemenis and Syrians.
Syria’s support of militant groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, has always strained relations with the United States. The relationship has suffered more with American accusations that Damascus was providing military supplies to the Iraqis.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Syria of helping Iraqi government members escape.
“We find it notably unhelpful,” Rumsfeld said at a Washington news conference.