Iraq began training its citizens Sunday to defend against an American attack, with men from their teens to their 70s forming ragged lines, chanting anti-American slogans and learning how to stand at attention.
While Iraqis drilled and American officials laid groundwork for a military strike, Russia, France and Turkey set out Sunday on fresh diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over U.N. weapons inspections.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf also accused American and British leaders of “a cheap kind of rhetoric” aimed at creating a phony crisis over U.N. weapons inspections.
Al-Sahhaf, speaking at a Baghdad news conference, said Iraq was cooperating with the inspectors. He also called for U.N. technical evaluations about Iraqi warheads, which began Sunday, “to go ahead in a calm way in order to verify the facts.”
The United States has threatened military strikes because of Iraq’s refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors unfettered access to “sensitive sites,” such as presidential compounds. Iraq says such inspections would violate its sovereignty.
The inspectors must certify that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction before trade sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, can be lifted.
Meanwhile on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis went to fields and school yards nationwide to begin training under a mobilization program ordered by President Saddam Hussein, the official Iraqi News Agency said.
When the military training program was announced two weeks ago, officials said it would provide instruction on small arms - presumably assault rifles and grenades. Sunday’s session was largely a roll call.
About 120 people stood in three uncertain lines at the Khaled Ibn Waleed School in Baghdad under instructions from officials of the ruling Baath Party. The volunteers, from teenagers in baseball caps to men in their 70s, shouted “We are ready to face America” and the traditional chant, “With our bodies and souls, we will defend you, Saddam.”
Hosni Taher, a neighborhood Baath official, said that soldiers would begin today to teach marching. No actual weapons training was expected for about 10 days.
When asked how the little-disciplined throng could be turned into a military unit, Borhan Gazal, a volunteer who said he was a former ambassador, noted it was only the first day of training.
“In the coming days, they will be trained to use weapons to defend their country,” he said.
When it was pointed out that any American attack likely would be with missiles - not soldiers on the ground - Gazal replied, “Nevertheless, we have to defend ourselves.”
Behind him, one of the volunteers said the training was symbolic, to show support for Saddam.
At another training field in the surrounding Waziria neighborhood, Baath official Saad Abdul-Razak told reporters that the United States should not attack Iraq without considering the consequences.
“If America will take any aggression against Iraq, it will be the end of America,” he said.
Nearby, a soldier gave instructions on how to stand at attention and march, with firm steps and arms swinging.
Officials have said that a million people have volunteered for training. But some Iraqis - refusing to give their names - said Baath officials went house to house and simply took the names of every man.