The audience knew what to expect when Iraqi commandos took the stage at the stadium here Wednesday with frogs and a rabbit in hand, preparing to celebrate with a bloody flourish the transfer of local authority from U.S. to Iraqi troops.
But the Americans were in for a surprise.
As U.S. commanders and guests watched, 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 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.
The ceremony marked the shifting of responsibility for security in Najaf province to Iraqi forces, and was attended by U.S. and Iraqi dignitaries, including Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie. It was the third such shift by the U.S.-led coalition, following the transfer of Muthanna province by the British in July and Dhi Qar province by the Italians in September.
The show of Iraqi machismo followed a tamer warm-up by counter-terrorism forces from the Interior Ministry. They performed martial arts moves before simulating the capture of a "terrorist," in this case a fellow police officer in civilian clothes.
The gory performance was familiar territory for many Iraqis, who grew up watching such shows of strength, either at mass gatherings or aired live on Saddam Hussein's state-run television. The former president's Fedayeen, or special forces, were known for devouring wolves, and commandos ate a variety of animals: snakes, dogs, 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 Askari, an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman.
But the demonstration was not standard operating procedure for the Americans.
"Our soldiers do a lot of things, but I've never seen them do anything like that," U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, who attended the ceremony, told the Associated Press.
U.S. commandos have long studied survival techniques that include devouring freshly killed animals. But it's usually under duress rather than on stage, U.S. military historians say.
Rich 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 still remembers being taught how to kill and eat a snake. "However, 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."
Times staff writer Saif Hameed in Baghdad contributed to this report.