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Graduation Day for Iraqi Opposition Volunteers - 2003-03-01


Friday was graduation day for the first group of Iraqi opposition volunteers who received training at the United States military airbase in Hungary. They will support a U.S.-led coalition in the event of war with Iraq.

The spokesman of the U.S. training task force says about 50 Iraqi exiles received a certificate of approval after four weeks of training at the airbase in Taszar, now called "Camp Freedom", 200 kilometers south west of Budapest.

Their certificate states that the volunteers, who successfully ended their training, are part of what has been dubbed the "Free Iraqi Forces" and that they sacrificed personal comfort "to achieve freedom for all."

Speaking by telephone, Major Robert Stern said the training program focused on a variety of non-combat duties in case of a war against their homeland. "The first phase concentrated on basic skills such as self defense. And than the second phase of the training program, which they just completed, focused on their main role and responsibility which was in civil military operations, where they learned how they will play a key role in coordinating and facilitating communication between the coalition forces and humanitarian relief organizations, the emergency services such as the red cross and also to deal with and help coordinate with any displaced citizens who need help of those organizations," he said.

Among the trainees were representatives from the major Iraqi groups, including Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis and Christians from all parts of the country.

The men, many of whom fled Iraq, were the first group to graduate from the program.

Major Stern said most of them came from their new found homes in North America, and that they made in his words "huge sacrifices" to participate in a possible war with Iraq. "Many of them have left their jobs and their homes and their families behind. Some of them were owners of businesses some of them worked at universities, were researchers," he said. "Many with college degrees and engineers. And they put all that on hold in order to participate in this training program because of their dream to return to a free and democratic Iraq."

Hungary's Socialist-led government has authorized the United States to bring in up to 3,000 Iraqis and about 2,000 military personnel, including trainers, for sessions at the Taszar air base.

However recent opinion polls show that most Hungarians are against the training and that eight out of ten people oppose a war with Iraq.

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