Iraqi forces hungry for action

At ceremony for handover from U.S., troops devour live animals

December 21, 2006|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Saad Fakhrildeen | Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Saad Fakhrildeen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, IRAQ -- The local audience knew what to expect when Iraqi commandos took the stage at the stadium here yesterday with frogs and a rabbit in hand, preparing to celebrate with a bloody flourish the handover of local authority from U.S. to Iraqi troops.

The Americans were in for a surprise.

As U.S. commanders and guests looked on, the burly commandos in dark green T-shirts began taking bites out of the frogs.

One man knelt, placed the rabbit belly-up on his lap, and proceeded to cut it open with his military knife. He screamed as he bit the rabbit's heart, then handed the carcass to his companions who began gnawing away, blood flowing down their cheeks.

"Our soldiers do a lot of things, but I've never seen them do anything like that," U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kurt A. Cichowski, who attended the ceremony, told the Associated Press.

The ceremony marked the handover of responsibility for security in Najaf province to Iraqi forces and was attended by U.S. and Iraqi dignitaries, including Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak Rubaie. It was the third such transfer of authority by the U.S.-led coalition, after the handover of Muthana province by the British in July and of Dhi Qar province by the Italians in September.

The show of Iraqi machismo at the handover followed a tamer warm-up by counterterrorism forces from the Interior Ministry. Dressed in karate uniforms, they performed martial arts moves before simulating the capture of a "terrorist," in this case a fellow policeman in civilian clothes.

The bloody performance was familiar territory for many Iraqis, who grew up watching such shows of brute strength, either at mass gatherings or aired live on Saddam Hussein's state-run television. The former president's special forces, or fedayeen, were known for devouring wolves, and commandos ate a variety of animals: snakes, dogs and cats, as well as the usual frogs and rabbits.

"This is included in their training. It's an indication that they can operate under any circumstances, whatever nature provides them," said Mohammed al-Askari, an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman. "They can eat rabbit, snakes, frogs - what matters is they can operate and eat whatever they can find."

U.S. commandos have long been taught survival techniques that include devouring live animals. They're just usually dining under duress rather than on stage, U.S. military historians say.

Richard Baker, a military historian at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa., said soldiers are often taught to eat small animals, such as snails. The Army Field Manual contains dozens of examples, including culinary oddities such as insects, frogs, snakes and lizards.

Baker, who served in the Air Force, says he remembers being taught how to kill and eat snake. "However," he said, "I didn't get to the point where I had to actually do it."

Certainly not on stage.

"That's not something you would find in the Western world," he said. "PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] would probably roll over and scream bloody murder."

Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Saad Fakhrildeen write for the Los Angeles Times.

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