BASRA, IRAQ -- Volunteers training in this port city to fight in Iraq's rear-guard Popular Army vowed to sacrifice themselves and their children to save their country, but regular soldiers returning from the Kuwaiti front this week said they hope to avoid a war with the West.
Unmanned antiaircraft guns point skyward from dirt mounds scattered around Basra and are stacked under wooden sheds at the Abu Sukheir training camp for Popular Army volunteers, where foreign journalists were taken on a visit organized by the Ministry of Information. Iraq's 5 million-man Popular Army forms the rear guard of its armed forces and is composed mainly of teenagers and men over 40, too young or old to be regular soldiers.
The rusty wrecks of half-sunken ships still jut out of the greenish water of the Shatt al Arab, the waterway that links the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf. On its shore, bronze statues of about 100 dead "martyr heroes" of the 1980-88 war with Iran point to what once was the front at Faw, 50 miles away.
The fighting stopped more than two years ago, but mounds of rubble and debris at the outskirts of Basra still bear witness to the devastation caused by Iranian shelling.
Hattab Razzouki, 40, a technician at an oil company, comes here for two hours daily for a 10-to-12-day training session at Abu Sukheir along with teachers, factory workers and other volunteers. "God willing, we will leave their corpses in the desert," he said of the U.S.-led forces confronting Iraq. "They do not fathom what Iraq is all about," he said.
A school headmaster with six children, Abdullah Majid Latif, said two of his sons were in college and two others, aged 21 and 22, were in the Popular Army. Asked if he feared for their lives in the event of an attack against Iraq to drive it out of Kuwait, Latif delivered a frequently heard answer: "Afraid? Is there anything more precious than one's homeland?"
But regular army soldiers returning from Kuwait to Baghdad via Basra spoke differently in brief encounters here.
"There is a lot of worry, a lot of worry over Kuwait and anxiety over how it may end. Frankly, I am not happy about it," said a soldier named Ismail, who earns 87 dinars a month -- about $260 at the official rate and less than $20 on the black market. "I just got married and I want to start my life again. I only see my wife four days a month and we are still at peace, not war. What do I get out of this army except the uniform I wear?"
Ismail was injured in an Iraqi counterattack during the war with Iran. He listed eight battles he fought in, including Faw. "I only remember the day I was hit. I had two machine-gun bullets in my thigh. I was in such pain that the only thing I could think of was death, but I dealt with it at the time, because I am a soldier," he recalled.
Another soldier accompanying Ismail on his journey through Basra said the Iraqi army had anti-tank and antiaircraft defenses and was deeply dug in. Earlier this week, Iraq's military command announced it was sending an additional 250,000 troops to Kuwait and Basra.
When told the Iraqi army may be lagging in technology compared to U.S.-led forces in the gulf, Ahmed Ali, 30, shrugged. "We have weapons too, but more than that, we have experience," he stressed.
Both soldiers, chatting freely, said they would rather be spared from the ravages of more battles. "We prefer not to have a war. Lives will be lost and it will be of no benefit to either side," Ismail said. They refused to get into the politics of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, but when pressed, Ahmed Ali argued: "In reality, Kuwait attacked us first, not with arms but they attacked our honor."
Basra is where free-spending Kuwaitis came up for long, liquid weekends at the bars, restaurants and hotels to drink and party and pick up Iraqi women. Basra is also where Kuwaitis came to do business, driving up prices as the Iraqi dinar fell against the Kuwaiti currency in the wake of the costly war with Iran.
At the end of the afternoon's training, the men shouted slogans and raised their guns in a tribute to President Saddam Hussein. As a navy band played slightly off-key martial music, English teacher Jaber Musa Saadoun, 40, recalled his most difficult days in the eight-year war with Iran.
While surrounding Iranian troops attacked his unit for several days, Saadoun said: "We ate wild weeds and drank dirty water from the swamps. But we did not give in and one night we managed to infiltrate behind enemy lines."
Popular Army volunteers have Kalashnikov rifles and some have pistols. Each one carries a German-made gas mask. "All I know is my weapon," Saadoun said.
Saadoun conceded that a war between Iraqi and Western forces would be more hazardous than the previous one. "Now the war will be between two great forces," he said. "This will be different and it might be more dangerous."