Syrian fighter says Hussein's Iraq betrayed him

Paralyzed from the waist down after being shot by American soldiers in the battle for Baghdad, Fahd lies in a hospital bed here contemplating a bleak future. But any bitterness harbored by the 18-year-old Syrian student is reserved solely for the Iraqi Republican Guards, "traitors," he says, who yielded the Iraqi capital without a fight.

All across the Arab world, young men who rallied to defend Iraq from the Anglo-American invasion are returning home, many of them disillusioned and embittered by the swift collapse of Iraqi resistance and the sometimes hostile reception they received from ordinary Iraqis.

"I went to Baghdad and was not expecting to come back. I was prepared to be a martyr, to die for God and victory," Fahd says, his voice little more than a whisper. "But I was shocked how easily Baghdad fell because I thought that Saddam Hussein could resist. The treason of the Republican Guard led to the collapse. I saw no Iraqi soldiers, except for the officers who told us where to go. All the fighting in Baghdad was by volunteers like me."

Like millions of Arabs at the start of the war, Fahd, who asked that his family name be withheld, tuned into Arabic-language satellite channels and was roused by the graphic footage of Iraqi civilian casualties. "It made us furious to see so much suffering. As a Muslim, I felt that I had to help," he says.

Ten days into the war, Fahd and three school friends agreed they would run away to Iraq and join the volunteer fighters.

"None of us told our parents. I was afraid my father would stop me from going," he says.

It took the four teenagers two days to travel from their home in the small town of Qsair near the Lebanese border in western Syria to reach the Iraqi frontier. They chose a remote location along the 400-mile desert border to cross into Iraq, but as they scrambled over the bulldozed sand barrier that marks the frontier, they were spotted by Syrian border police.

"The police caught one of us before he could cross into Iraq and they yelled at us to come back, but we ignored them and kept running," Fahd says.

Over the next five days, the three friends gradually made their way to Baghdad, hitching rides with Iraqis and linking up with dozens of other volunteers.

"There were Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians. They came from all Arab countries. All of them felt like me. We wanted to fight the Americans," he said.

They reached Baghdad from the north just as American troops were entering the southern outskirts of the capital. Fahd joined some 200 other volunteers and was taken by Iraqi army officers to a succession of military barracks and sports clubs, trying to stay one step ahead of American air strikes. After two days on the move, the Iraqis gave the volunteers AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. Fahd had never even fired a gun before, let alone had any formal military training.

"They showed us how to fire the gun and the RPG then they took us to a road bridge on a highway somewhere in Baghdad," he says. "There were 50 of us in my group and we positioned ourselves on one side of the bridge and waited for the Americans to arrive."

A few hours later, an American column of tanks and infantry backed by helicopters approached the opposite end of the bridge.

"I cannot describe my feeling at that moment. I was very excited. I cared nothing for Saddam Hussein. I was there to defend the dignity and honor of my religion," Fahd says.

As Fahd shouldered his RPG launcher and prepared to attack, his companions fled, leaving him alone with only two other volunteers.

"We refused to leave and instead fired our rockets at the Americans. We hit three tanks and some soldiers. I saw the soldiers fall but I don't know if they were killed or wounded," he says.

His supply of rockets depleted, Fahd picked up his rifle, but it jammed. The three volunteers decided to escape.

"We crawled away from our position but as I stood to climb over a wall I felt three bullets hit me in the back. I fell to the ground and another bullet hit me in the leg," Fahd says.

Bleeding heavily, but still conscious, Fahd was rescued 10 minutes later by other volunteers and taken to hospital where he learned that one of the bullets had hit his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.

After he spent several days recovering, the hospital arranged for a car to take him back to Syria.

Fahd's parents, who had no idea of their son's whereabouts, were distraught when they learned of his condition.

"His father hugged him and kissed him and was very sad," says Mahmoud al-Mirai, Fahd's uncle. "As a father, he had many dreams and ambitions for his eldest son."

From a poor background, there is little prospect of Fahd's family affording the kind of medical care that might help him walk again.

Fahd was shot the same day that Baghdad fell, and the futility of his sacrifice still rankles.

"If I had known that the Republican Guard would betray us, I would never have gone to Baghdad," he says. "If they had fought with courage and dignity alongside us, I could accept my injury."

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