The group, recruited by the militant Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, left for Baghdad yesterday after a belligerent send-off at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Before shuffling through passport control, watched by bewildered fellow travellers, the paramilitary 'volunteers' stood for photographs before a banner proclaiming their cause: 'We are proud of you, Saddam.'
'You are going to defend Iraq, a victim of reckless aggression by America and Israel,' said Mr Zhirinovsky, whose previous endeavours have included a presidential campaign in 1991 built around a promise of cheap vodka. Each volunteer, he said, is an expert in partisan warfare and sabotage and will fight alongside the army of Saddam Hussein, once Moscow's favourite Middle East client but since jilted in favour of close ties with the West.
Praising his volunteers as 'falcons' of freedom, Mr Zhirinovsky said: 'They know practically all types of modern weapons; they've had special training.' He then slapped each recruit on the shoulders and hailed their mission as marking the birth of a new Russian army: 'Each new army needs its own war to start with. For us this is Iraq.'
Zealous support for Iraq adds to a lengthy list of fiery causes espoused by Mr Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, known for neither its liberalism nor democracy. Others include a demand that Moscow recover not only the former Soviet republics but also Finland and other lost chunks of the former tsarist empire.
'The current situation won't last long. Russia will be reborn and defend its national interests everywhere, inside the country and elsewhere,' proclaimed Mr Zhirinovsky. 'You will gain experience essential for those destined to become the core of a new Russian army.'
With the Aeroflot flight preparing to board, Mr Zhirinovsky, dressed for the occasion in green military garb, bid a final, rousing farewell: 'I wish you a safe return, though some of you may die there. You will die for a noble cause.' Mr Zhirinovsky himself faces no such risk: he is staying in Moscow. He is needed, he explained, to recruit more volunteers and coordinate the struggle against President Boris Yeltsin.Reuse content