A freezing wind whips snow flurries through the coils of razor wire that surround this U.S. military base deep in the heart of the Hungarian countryside. Heavily armed soldiers stand guard at the perimeter, while high-security checkpoints control entry and exit.
This is Camp Freedom, headquarters of the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF), now being trained by U.S. army instructors to help run post-Saddam Iraq. The camp was established under the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, under which the United States is obliged to support efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power and promote a democratic alternative. The $97 million act also authorizes the U.S. Department of Defense to provide military equipment and training.
FIF soldiers range in age from 18 to 60. Some have military experience in guerrilla movements or the Iraqi army. Drawn from a cross-section of the Iraqi opposition, they include Sunnis, Shi'as, and Kurds. The aim is to send them back to their hometowns and cities once those have been captured, where they will be able to guide Allied forces.
Many, like Hakim, have not seen their families for decades. A middle-aged former oil-business executive, Hakim fled from Iraq over 30 years ago when the regime launched a campaign against the country's Shi'a minority. After living in the Gulf states, he made his way to the United States. Hakim's family name, town of origin in Iraq, and precise age cannot be revealed for security reasons.
"I have no idea whether my family in Iraq is still alive. My mother had many children and she told me to flee, so that at least one would survive. Our mission is to help liberate Iraq. I plan to stay on afterwards and build a country where people have dignity and equality," he said.
"Iraq was the cradle of civilization, a place of tolerance where different cultures and religions lived together. Now there is fear in every Iraqi soul. Saddam is destroying one of the world's cultural treasures that stretches back to the time of Abraham. All resources are being directed towards this evil aim, to stay in power no matter what.
"Saddam does not just affect Iraq but the whole of the Middle East and the rest of the world. Iraq has whatever resources it needs to meet the needs of the people there, but we never had the chance. I just pray to God liberation will come true."
Hungary has given permission for up to 3,000 trainees to pass through Camp Freedom. The first batch of several dozen has almost completed the four-week course. The first stage covers the military skills necessary to survive on the battlefield: self-defense, pistol marksmanship, navigation, and teamwork development. The second focuses on civilian-military operations such as ensuring a clean water supply and providing facilities for refugees. Classes are taught in English and simultaneously translated into Arabic.
Camp commander Col. Stephen Yackley said: "Their role will be one of liaison between the military and the civilian population. They will work on resource control, providing humanitarian assistance and emergency services."
Housed in large tents with wooden floors, trainees are issued U.S. army uniforms with FIF shoulder patches. Their day begins at 5.30 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m., including five prayer breaks. They are allowed to write letters to their families and can watch satellite television, although they do not have access to the telephone, Internet, or the Arab station Al-Jazeera.
The mess provides halal food or dishes such as barbecued chicken and hamburgers.
Mohammad, also middle-aged, is a former member of the Iranian-backed Islamic Mujahideen: "I have been working to liberate Iraq for 30 years. I had to leave my wife and daughter behind in the United States, but I have a mission that is more important. They understand and they support me. The Iraqi people are waiting for this moment, to get rid of Saddam."
The anti-war demonstrators in Europe would not take to the streets if they knew the truth about Saddam's regime, he said. "In 1991 Saddam killed 500,000 people when they rose against him. Nobody demonstrated against him then. But now that the United States wants to get rid of the dictator, people are demonstrating against it."
Outside Camp Freedom, however, there is a growing rift between Iraqi opposition leaders and the U.S. administration. There are fears that just as in post-Milosevic Serbia, significant elements of the army, intelligence, and security forces would be allowed to survive the transition in exchange for withdrawing their support for the dictatorship. Many of Saddam's former officials would then be used by the United States to administer a new regime.
Public opinion in Hungary is nervous over the training operation. Seventy-six percent of the population is opposed to any war on Iraq, even with a U.N. mandate, according to a Gallup poll of 1,000 people conducted in late January. Two-thirds of those asked said the Hungarian population was badly informed about the training at Camp Freedom, while one-third said the government itself was badly informed.
But for Hakim and Mohammad these are questions for politicians. They dream of returning home to a free country. "I became very emotional when I heard about this opportunity. It was like a dream come true," said Hakim. "I drew up my will and left everything to my wife and children. I hope they will join me when we liberate Iraq. That day will be the greatest emotion I can imagine. Iraq is our home, the problem is ours, the decision is ours, and the mission is ours."
This article first appeared in The Times of London and is reprinted with permission.