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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 March, 2003, 21:51 GMT
Inside Iraqi exiles' training camp
By Tristana Moore
BBC correspondent in Hungary

It is the first time television journalists have been allowed into Hungary's Taszar airbase where US forces have been training Iraqi volunteers to assist them in any conflict with Iraq.

Heavily armed soldiers stand guard - the base is a closed military area.

Extra barbed wire has been strung along the perimeter for fear of commando infiltration from the snow-covered fields beyond.

Iraqi volunteers being taught at Taszar airbase
Recruits are being trained to run a post-Saddam Iraq
As we drive through the base, a C-130 aircraft touches down.

The Americans first came to Taszar in 1995, when it was their main logistical base for the multinational peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

Now, Washington has permission to train up to 3,000 Iraqi exiles to accompany a US force in Iraq.

'Camp Freedom'

The Americans call this place Camp Freedom.

It is the headquarters of the new Free Iraqi Forces.

With our American minders, we were shown inside the classroom where the Iraqi opposition activists are being trained to administer a post-Saddam regime.

It is all top-secret - no names, no faces, so we were told.

Most of the volunteers were chosen by the London-based Iraqi National Congress (INC).

I signed a will before coming here to Hungary. If I die during this mission, then so be it.
Mohammed, Iraqi volunteer

Mohammed fled from Iraq more than 20 ago.

Since then, he has been living in the United States, in Los Angeles, working as a computer salesman.

Mohammed says he found out about the training programme on the Pentagon's website.

"They told me my job is to carry out civilian duties. I shall provide a point of contact between coalition forces and Iraqi civilians. I'll be helping international relief organisations and the Americans," he added.

< Mohammed says he is worried about the safety of his family in Baghdad

"Each time I speak to my relatives in Baghdad, they tell me they're well. But I know that's all they can say as the telephone conversations are being monitored."

"I know there will be many casualties in this war," he continues, his voice trembling, "but I believe in a free, democratic Iraq.

"I signed a will before coming here to Hungary. If I die during this mission, then so be it."

The official line is that the Iraqis are not being trained for a combat role.

I was told the 'recruits' would accompany coalition forces in Iraq.

And officials at the camp adamantly denied they were spies.

Local fears

In the neighbouring town of Kaposvar, trucks with United States Army license plates rush down the roads.

Guards at entrance to Taszar airbase
It is the first time journalists have been allowed inside the airbase

Hungarians have very different ideas about what the Iraqis are really up to at Taszar.

And the heavy security is making them nervous.

"We were told at first that they were training to be translators, then we were told they were civilian administrators," says Karoly Szita, the mayor of Kaposvar.

"No-one told us about the decision to accept the Iraqis. We weren't consulted. Local residents are worried as our town may now become the target for terrorist attacks."

A recent opinion poll showed 80 per cent of Hungarians oppose war with Iraq - even with a United Nations mandate. Hungary joined Nato in 1999.

As one of Nato's newest members, the socialist government of Peter Medgessy has been keen to show he is a true friend of President Bush.

Expansion plans

The first group of volunteers has already finished the course at Taszar.

Neither the Hungarians nor the Americans will say how many Iraqis are here or how long their training will last.

But dozens of tents are being set up at the base.

And there were more Hungarian construction workers than Iraqi volunteers, testament to the Americans' plans to expand Taszar.

From this remote, frozen corner of Hungary, we are told that the Iraqis will be sent to a third neutral country.

Their destination is unknown - but we might just presume it will be somewhere in the Gulf.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Nick Thorpe at the Taszar airbase
"Many [trainees] still have relatives inside Iraq"




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