Washington has dismissed the Iraqi resistance as extremists, Saddam loyalists, foreigners, and criminals. But Baghdad is full of ordinary men and women ~ teachers, shopkeepers, mothers ~ who are learning a clandestine new trade: armed insurgency. Getting to know a number of fighters, and discovering how organized they have become, the author finds this disparate army shares one belief: that expelling the U.S. is a battle they cannot refuse, or lose.
by Molly Bingham
At three p.m. on December 14, L. Paul Bremer walked into a crowded press-briefing room in Baghdad and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!” Saddam Hussein had been captured the night before, and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (C.P.A.), headed by Bremer, expected that, with Saddam gone, the resistance to the American occupation in Iraq would quickly fade away.
That night, I went to see a contact, a member of the Iraqi resistance, at an address in the Adhamiyya district of Baghdad. Just minutes after I arrived, we heard shouts and gunfire approaching outside, and my contact, whom I’ll call the Traveler, ushered me out to the dark, electricity-deprived street and into the middle of a fervent pro-Saddam demonstration.
Young men were shooting AK-47 rifles into the air and chanting, “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Saddam!” A few hotheads objected to my presence and pointed their guns at me, then lowered them when the escorts the Traveler had sent out with me explained that I was an invited guest. When the mob attacked a Shiite bakery, throwing stones and breaking the plate-glass window, a man who clearly had some standing in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood stepped in their way and waved his arms. “No! No! No!” he shouted. “This is not what this is about!”
When I returned to the apartment, the Traveler was sitting on a dingy couch in a small room lit by a single flashlight, surrounded by friends and colleagues. Watching the news of Saddam’s capture earlier in the day, he had paced a small room, declaring, “If this is Saddam, found as a coward like that, hiding, then he is no longer my leader.” But he had already regained his composure and adjusted his thinking, though I could see it wasn’t easy for him. “We thank America for capturing Saddam Hussein,” he said. “That will give us credibility in our resistance.”
A woman active in the insurgency who was sitting nearby with her young child on her knees chimed in: “The resistance is against the occupation. We weren’t resisting because of Saddam. This is our country, this is an occupation ~ we believe that. If this was your country, if this was your house that was taken from you, you would feel the same way.”
In late May of 2003, I was working on a story at the Abu Hanifa Mosque, in Adhamiyya, when a mild-mannered man approached me and struck up a conversation. After a few minutes of amiable talk on the large white marble flagstones of the mosque’s compound, the man told me that he was a member of the resistance.
There had been only a handful of attacks against Americans at that point, and it seemed strange that this gentle, thoughtful man should be telling me, a foreigner, that he was involved in opposing what he called “the occupation.” As the attacks increased throughout the summer, I often thought about him and wondered if this man, whom I’ll call the Teacher, was representative of the Iraqi insurgency.
Even in August, three months after George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq, no one seemed to know who the resistance fighters were, how they thought, what motivated them, and what, if anything, would bring them to peace. Was it true that they were “Saddam loyalists,” “Ba’th Party diehards,” “dead-enders,” “common criminals,” or “al-Qaeda and foreign fighters,” as officials in Washington and Baghdad had variously described them? I decided to find out.
I discovered that members of the insurgency cannot be found. They must find you, and find me they did. After just two weeks in Adhamiyya, a small neighborhood with close ties to Falluja and Ramadi, I realized I didn’t need to go anywhere else; the area was filled with resistance members from various groups. Over the nine months I spent there walking the streets, hanging out at the main mosque, and sitting in tea shops, bakeries, and juice bars, I developed contacts within the resistance and got to know a number of its members.
(There is an array of terms used to describe these fighters. They usually refer to themselves as “mujahideen” and to their side as the “resistance.” The coalition authority often calls them “insurgents” or, in some cases, “terrorists.” For lack of a neutral term, I’ve chosen to use “resistance” and “insurgency” interchangeably.)
Some of what I discovered about the insurgency is not so surprising. Its members are fighting for their freedom and for the sovereignty of their nation. They are fighting for their God against an occupying force of a different faith. They are also fighting for their dignity and ghira ~ an Iraqi term meaning a sense of integrity, self-respect, and honor, rooted in the protection of one’s country and family.
What I hadn’t expected was that the insurgents would be so diverse. For while some certainly are veterans of Saddam’s 400,000-man military, which Bremer summarily disbanded in May 2003, others I met included a teacher, a wife, a mother, a mechanic, a truck driver, and a Ph.D. holder.
In mid-April 2003, just a week after the fall of Baghdad, the resistance to the American occupation was already beginning to take shape. Through the late spring, uncoordinated attacks on U.S. military vehicles and personnel were common. In the summer, however, the insurgency developed and employed homemade bombs known as improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.’s), then remotely detonated I.E.D.’s, and then highly coordinated, multi-layered attacks combining I.E.D.’s, small-arms fire, and rocket-propelled grenades (R.P.G.’s).
As the U.S. military and C.P.A. built bigger walls and fortified their positions, the insurgency began using car bombs, mortars, surface-to-surface missiles, and multiple-rocket launchers. By the end of November, the coalition’s casualty figures were substantial, with 356 dead and 1,605 wounded in combat.
From Washington to Baghdad, officials dismissed the insurgents’ tactics—particularly the use of I.E.D.’s and car bombs ~ as signs of a desperate and dying force, remnants of the regime’s leaders and military, without the manpower or expertise to confront the U.S. military machine directly.
As it turned out, however, this was a capable resistance that was busy developing its coordination and communication skills and securing sources of weapons and funding. As one colleague of mine commented in the fall, “It’s like watching the I.R.A. on speed.”
Back in the living room on the night after Saddam’s capture, the Traveler expanded on his nationalist principles and the fundamentals of the resistance. “Saddam Hussein is a great leader,” he said. “We adore him. We respect him. But today’s operation, arresting him, will not undermine our morale. Our leadership will remain stable. If one man is removed, 10 people will replace him. They will fight, fight, fight, and kick out the aggressor, inshallah [God willing].”
The Traveler is a silver fox of the resistance. Now in his 50s, he fought with a militant organization on behalf of the Palestinians for almost 20 years, beginning when he was a teenager. He went on to pursue degrees in law and military science in Lebanon, returning home every so often to Iraq, where he has children with his wife of 30 years.
He resigned from Saddam’s Ba’th Party in the late 1990s in disgust over corruption and the local leadership, but he still believes in the founding principles of the Arab Ba’th Socialist Party, the unity of the Arab nation, and the greatness of Saddam Hussein with the fervor and enthusiasm of a fresh recruit. He also debunks the myth of an exclusively Sunni resistance: the Traveler, it turns out, is a Shiite.
The Traveler’s charm, magnetic personality, and easy way with people made him a natural leader of the emerging insurgency, and his wisdom and experience seemed to trickle down to the lower ranks as the fall gave way to the cool, crisp days of Baghdad’s winter.
Though he commands his own group of fighters in Baghdad, the Traveler really functions as a freelance consultant to the insurgency, though he is choosy about whom he will work with. He is in a position to modify plans, offer advice, approve some attacks, reject others. He has extensive contacts throughout the Middle East and can summon formidable financial and logistic resources.
Having spent so many years fighting abroad, the Traveler is especially passionate about the current struggle. “This is my soil, and it is dear,” he said one day, clutching a clump of dry Iraqi earth in one hand and a grenade in the other, as we sat in the shade of a palm tree outside Baghdad. “Why did [the soldier] come and put his feet on it? Nothing is dearer except Allah. Allah and the homeland.”
When we first met, in August of last year, the Traveler suggested that the insurgency was in its infancy. “As long as the occupation continues, day by day, the Iraqi individual’s sense of patriotism will grow,” he said. Back then, the resistance was most evident in the Sunni Triangle, enclosed by Baghdad, Tikrit, and Ramadi.
The Shiites, who make up a slim majority of Iraqis and whose political parties had been repressed by the predominantly Sunni Ba’thists, seemed to be going along with the U.S.-led coalition, however warily. But even then, the Traveler was confident that the Shiites would come around. If they had been deceived by the Americans with sweet words and promises, he said, it wouldn’t be long before they realized their mistake and joined the fight.
When I met the Teacher for a second time, in August, he described in rich detail the last battle of Baghdad, waged in Adhamiyya and ending on April 10, a day after the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdus Square, just a few miles south, had been pulled down in front of the TV cameras and the world.
The Teacher is no Ba’thist or Saddam loyalist. Now in his 40s, he has been a teacher all his life, and had hated Saddam Hussein for allowing the educational system to degrade under economic sanctions. Today, however, he says of Saddam, “We have come to recognize his value.… Now I refuse to let anyone talk badly about him.”
The Teacher said he belonged to an Islamic resistance group, though he wouldn’t tell me its name. “They don’t know I’m talking to you,” he said. “We don’t seek any fame or recognition, or to be in the media spotlight. We don’t want anyone to know who we are. My family doesn’t even know in detail what I am doing.”
A modest and gentle man who had never been religious (“I didn’t even know my way to the mosque”), he had undergone a stunning transformation that began on the night of April 8, when a group of Arab foreign fighters, invited by Saddam Hussein long before the war began to help defend Iraq, were deposited at a school in Adhamiyya that was being used as a base by the Ba’thists.
The next day, the foreigners awoke for morning prayers to find that the Ba’thists had abandoned them and that the Americans were in Adhamiyya. The battle began that morning, just after dawn, and continued for two days.
The Teacher found the foreign Arabs inspiring. Standing before the grave of one, a Syrian who had been killed fighting the Americans on April 9, he said to me, “What pushed this martyr to come to fight, to come to Iraq?”
Gunfire speckled the sky nearby as he continued: “This Syrian hero, he didn’t even have the cost of transportation from Syria to Iraq. And some say they were mercenaries. If you had seen the fight and what happened in [Adhamiyya], you would know that these people did not come for the sake of money. They came to raise the word of Allah, and to defend the Arab land.”
The American invasion of Iraq, his personal experience during the battle of Adhamiyya, the disrespect with which he felt American soldiers treated the shrine of Abu Hanifa ~ all this drove the Teacher to join the insurgency. He has no military background or training, but within a week of Baghdad’s fall he found a group of like-minded people and began working with them as a weapons procurer, purchasing, organizing, transporting, and storing arms for his group.
“I need four eyes in my head and four hands to do everything,” he said one afternoon as we sat in a dusty Baghdad park. “One to look after my work, one to look after my family, one to look after the weapons, and one to watch out for the spies.”
In the cell structure of the resistance, the Teacher said, he really knows only one other person in his group. In our first conversation, he described his responsibilities, sources of funding, and means of procuring weapons. “We need special kinds of weapons, because the operations have increased … like Strellas,” he said in August, naming a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapon that can also be used against armored vehicles. Strellas weren’t reported to be in use until the fall.
He also described a need for more sophisticated explosives at a time when the use of I.E.D.’s and car bombs had yet to become widespread. Several resistance sources told me that the shift to I.E.D.’s was made largely to avoid Iraqi civilian casualties.
Early attacks where insurgents fired AK-47s and R.P.G.’s at U.S. vehicles and then fled often provoked American soldiers to spray busy streets with gunfire, killing and injuring innocent bystanders.
The first major car-bomb attack ~ it was actually a truck loaded with 1,000 pounds of explosives ~ occurred just days after my conversation with the Teacher, on August 19. The massive explosion outside U.N. headquarters in Baghdad injured more than 100 people and killed 22, including the top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
While most Westerners view the U.N. as an impartial body, the resistance members I spoke to insisted that it functions as a pawn of the Americans and agreed with the decision to bomb its headquarters.
Individual factions within the insurgency seem to differ slightly over whom they see as legitimate targets, but all agree that American and coalition forces are at the top of the list. After that come Iraqis who cooperate with the C.P.A.: informers, translators, police and civil-defense officers who aren’t cooperating directly with the insurgency (as many are), and, last, civilian contractors and individuals who cooperate with the C.P.A.
The members of the Iraqi Governing Council, roundly despised as puppets of the occupation, are also targets; the May 17 car bombing that killed acting council president Ezzedine Salim was the second fatal attack on a council member.
The Teacher said his funding came from “[Iraqi] people who we know are financially capable, some outside sources from neighboring states, and some sources affiliated with Islam.” He added, “Do you think that the Syrian government or the Saudi government is sending us money? It’s from those [individuals] who have money ~ that’s where we get it.”
I took him to mean Saudi and Syrian businessmen and sheiks, and he did not correct me. “They didn’t even know specifically where the money will go,” he added.
The last time I saw the Teacher, in April, he was in a jocular mood, saying that he hadn’t slept well in months ~ “since the beginning of the war, in fact. I’m so tired that I am like a brother to my wife!” As he laughed, he slapped my hand, which was resting on my knee. It was an affable gesture that no hard-line Islamist would ever make with a woman.
Nevertheless, the Teacher claims that his group is Salafist ~ a strain of Islam that seeks to replicate the life of the prophet Muhammad as described in scripture. When I asked him about Osama bin Laden, also a Salafist, and al-Qaeda, the Teacher lowered his voice and spoke admiringly. “I really feel that they are fighters for the word of Allah,” he said, “but I have differences with them over their means of implementation.”
He paused, then added, “Deep in my heart, I wish I was working with al-Qaeda.”
Are there members of al-Qaeda here in Iraq? I asked. “I don’t really know the answer to that,” he said. “I heard rumors that they were working in the provinces, but it is just rumors. I don’t want to talk about something I don’t know about with you. I have spoken with you only about things that I know.”
The Teacher then took me to his car and, as American patrols passed by less than 100 yards away, showed me how he hid weapons under bottles of alcohol. (He said he had a special dispensation to use alcohol, which is forbidden under Islam, for this purpose.)
He produced two British-made submachine guns, which he said he was transporting to a man who would modify them for use with silencers. “They are killing them with [silencers]; they are killing the traitors,” he said, meaning spies.
The C.P.A. offers up to $2,500 for information leading to the arrest of anyone active in the resistance. “A man cannot be bought,” the Teacher said, “but the weak ones can be bought and the dollars are starting to work.”
There are other ways to conceal weapons, I discovered during my months in Baghdad. Wedding processions, which often entail the “celebratory fire” of automatic weapons, are usually left alone by coalition forces after several incidents in which U.S. soldiers, thinking they were under attack, killed innocent newlyweds and their family members.
Vegetable trucks packed to the gills with lettuce or onions can easily hide a box or two of R.P.G.’s. Even coffins, often carried on the roofs of cars, have been used to transport weapons.
The wife of one figure in this article talked at length about the kind of work she did for the insurgency. “[A woman] can transfer [weapons], but the men cannot. In our Arab society, the clothing of the women, the abaya [robe] and other things, can conceal weapons within them.”
Before we parted that day, the Teacher confided that he feared dying a useless death. “I have been responsible for the deaths of so many people,” he said, “and yet I haven’t yet killed anyone myself. I have asked my commander to let me carry out an operation, and he has agreed. With the help of Allah, my death will not be for nothing.” He hoped to one day earn a resting-place among the martyrs who are buried in the back garden at the Abu Hanifa Mosque, where I first met him.
The concept of martyrdom can be difficult for Westerners to grasp. The best way I can find to explain it, after long conversations with many who yearn for it, is that it is an aspiration and an ambition ~ in the same way that achieving social respect or owning a home is for many Americans.
There is an emphasis in Islam on the joys and rewards of “the second life,” rather than on the material concerns of the current one. Fighting jihad in an honest way, in accordance with sacred principles, guarantees a place in paradise for a Muslim. According to an imam I spoke with on several occasions ~ who, like the others, would be arrested if his identity were revealed ~ martyrdom is the greatest achievement a Muslim can hope for.
Much has been made in the West about the promise of 72 beautiful virgins for those who are martyred, but it is perhaps more telling that any martyr is said to be able to mediate the entrance into heaven of 70 of his family members, tribe members, or friends. The family of a martyr is guaranteed social respect and honor in this life, and paradise in the next.
The imam I spoke to, a young and energetic man, explained that there are two kinds of jihad. When a Muslim goes to fight an infidel in a foreign land, as the Traveler did in Palestine, that is seen as optional jihad.
The second kind is obligatory or defensive jihad, in which every Muslim person is called upon to defend his God, honor, and property (read “country”) from a non-Muslim invader. Each individual fights in the way he or she is capable of.
A businessman might contribute money, a teenager might carry messages, a doctor might tend to the sick and wounded, but all are rewarded with paradise.
Sitting cross-legged on a simple wooden bench in the office of his mosque, the imam said that, in his opinion and the opinion of many imams, the occupation of Iraq created the conditions for obligatory jihad. Our conversations took place both before and shortly after the capture of Saddam Hussein, an event that had a transforming effect on the resistance.
“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “Those who are loyal to their country and to their faith will emerge. Were the people fighting for the sake of Saddam? Or for the sake of the country? Now the people will be discovered for what they are.”
Saddam Hussein had used religion when it suited his purposes, but his leadership was founded on a semi-secular nationalism and Ba’thist socialism. By casting Saddam aside, the invasion created an environment where Islam, the only major societal structure left functioning, could flourish.
After Saddam’s capture, what had been a fairly diverse insurgency, with some Islamic elements and some nationalistic ones, began to coalesce, at least temporarily, under the all-embracing flag of Islam.
As a result, the Iraqi resistance has become eligible to reap the benefits of an international network of financial, logistic, and human support. Doors could open throughout the Muslim world, if they haven’t already, broadening and deepening the fight in a way that the Americans either failed to anticipate or chose to ignore during the run-up to war.
In December, I met a man I’ll call Arrak (an Iraqi term for “warrior”). We sat by the Tigris River on a cold and gray Christmas Eve and talked until our hands were frozen. He was nursing a cold and was bundled up against the damp chill.
He told me the story of his privileged childhood. A favorite son, he had been coddled by his parents and had been a good student, learning English in hopes of becoming a translator. In later years, however, he developed an addiction to soccer and did poorly on his exams. When his grades prevented him from getting into college to study English translation, he enrolled at a technical college and got a degree in business administration instead.
Before the 1991 Gulf War, he joined the Iraqi special forces and was trained with a specialty in urban warfare. After the war, the Shiites in the South staged massive uprisings, and Arrak said he became one of 1,186 “suicide fighters” sent to destroy the highly trained Ninth Battalion of the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, which had taken control of Karbala and Najaf, sites of the two most important Shiite shrines in the world.
At the end of the uprising, the few officers who returned to report the mission accomplished were not welcomed in the way they’d imagined. All 23 were immediately arrested as traitors, ostensibly for surviving their suicide mission, and sentenced to death by a high-ranking Ba’th Party official. As luck would have it, the politically influential father of one of the detainees negotiated a reprieve. Just six hours before they were to be executed, their sentences were commuted to 15 years in prison.
Over the next three and a half years, Arrak said he was tortured relentlessly. One of his bones was broken, pulled through the skin, and mercilessly twisted about in the open. He was beaten severely, and made to stand naked for nights on end in the February cold with air conditioners turned on him while he was hosed down with cold water. There was also “more horrific and personal” torture, which he declined to specify.
Finally, in the fall of 1994, he was unexpectedly released as part of a general amnesty. He was discharged into a military hospital, where it took him four months to recover, mentally and physically. He began to see the world in the starkest terms, as a jungle “full of rabbits, lions, and hyenas who scavenge.”
When he was discharged from the hospital, he returned home to find his mother, who thought he’d been killed years earlier, dying of what he can only describe as shame and a broken heart. His father died soon after.
“Life became very dark, and I found that there is no loyalty, there are no companions, no friends,” he said. “I began to trust no one, not even the people closest to me, because most of them were agents for the party and agents to the Ba’thists.”
Hoping to avoid the regime’s attention, he tried to get along by opening a small store. “I swore an oath that I’d never wear our military uniform again. The party kept chasing me, the security [forces], the combat [forces], the intelligence, and I kept saying, ‘I will not wear the military uniform again.’ But when the war came, I carried my gun and went.” In late February 2003, with war looming, Arrak returned to his old unit.
“I didn’t hope that a war would take place,” he says. “War means damage. It means that people will be hurt, will be killed. I didn’t hope for it. At the same time, I yearned for it. I yearned for it.” Arrak explains that he went to war for two reasons, one personal, one not.
“I hoped that I could be martyred. And when the events unfolded and I fought for 32 days, I threw myself at death, but it didn’t happen. Maybe Allah did not destine that for me. The second reason was that I wanted to break [the Americans’] pride.”
Arrak fought in the province of Diyala, which borders Iran north and east of Baghdad. When the war was over, he removed his uniform and his boots and walked home barefoot. It took him two days, during which he had no food or water. At home, he collapsed and slept for 48 hours before waking to the sound of American tanks rolling through Adhamiyya. Within days, he had organized his own cell of fighters.
When I met him, he was comfortable, confident, rational, and focused. As I asked him questions, he frequently looked off into the distance as if searching through the forest of his emotions for the answers. The English of his early ambitions remains, but he prefers to speak in Arabic and brings a friend to translate for him during our talks. He writes poetry, is well read, and clearly spends at least some of his time reading newspapers and watching TV reports.
There is nothing of the gang leader or power broker about him. He told me he has refused to accept money for his work, as that would violate the Koran’s definition of a true martyr. He owns no car, no property, few clothes, no cell phone ~ none of the accoutrements available to middle-class Iraqis.
And yet when I asked him if he considers himself religious, he replied, “No, I’m not a very committed Muslim. I mean, if someone prays, does it mean that he’s a prophet? And not everyone who drinks is a devil, isn’t that right?”
He looked at me with a wry smile, then added seriously, “I’m committed to my faith. Allah is inside me, in my brain, and during these days, let us say, since the collapse [of Baghdad] up until now, I have the highest level of faith inside me. But I don’t pray.”
Arrak’s strength is in commanding fighters on the ground. He said he has organized and executed operations all over the country, working with various cells and groups that request his help. One day he brought a 22-year-old Syrian fighter to meet me.
A Shiite who had come to Iraq to fight jihad against the Americans, the Syrian had no previous military experience, but Arrak had trained him, and supposedly others like him. He has become an enthusiastic fighter specializing in the use of R.P.G.’s. “The American tanks and vehicles are our training ground,” he told me from behind the red-and-white kaffiyeh scarf that hid his face.
Hoping to find out whether this young fighter’s passage to Iraq had been facilitated by al-Qaeda, I spent the better part of half an hour asking him how he had arrived. Frustrated with my questions, he finally said, “I went to the imam, who was preaching jihad in Iraq from the mosque in my area.… I told him I wanted to go to jihad. He told me I was very young, and to look after my life. But after I pressed him, and showed that I was determined, he made the arrangements for me to come to Iraq.… I traveled through a secret way and arrived in Falluja, where I met Arrak, who has looked after me since.… Arrak is my mother and father now.”
The Syrian said his parents had finally acquiesced and let him go to Iraq, throwing him a wedding-like ceremony before his departure. When it was time to go, his mother told him, “I don’t want you to come back to me alive. I want you to return as a martyr.”
The Syrian has been trained entirely by Iraqis and serves under Iraqi command. His situation bears little resemblance to the picture painted by the U.S. of independent foreign fighters badgering a local population eager for coalition-led democracy. In fact, most of the insurgents I spoke to in Iraq said they didn’t know any foreign fighters. Those who did denied that they were a significant presence in the country or that they were tied to al-Qaeda.
The Syrian said he’d been surprised when he arrived in Iraq last July to find “that the Iraqis are not rising as one hand.” He went on: “I am Shia. But the Shia in Iraq are not thinking about fighting. They are saying, ‘We have a sheikh [religious leader]. When he gives us a jihad fatwa [decree], we will fight, we will be mujahideen.’ If he issues a fatwa, this will be a tremendous thing. The fighting will be alive on the streets. Everyone will fight, Shia and Sunni. If the Shia and Sunni join as one hand … “
He shook his head and his voice trailed off. He had no words to describe the war that would then emerge.
I last met Arrak in April, at a time when the Syrian’s dream of an all-inclusive resistance seemed well on its way to being realized. A series of events had combined to inflame the tinderbox of Iraqi resentment. On Sunday, March 28, the Americans shut down the Al-Hawza-al-Natiqa newspaper, run by followers of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, claiming that it was inciting violence against Americans.
Three days later, four American contractors working with Blackwater Security Consulting, a paramilitary company providing security for the C.P.A., were killed in an ambush as they drove through the town of Falluja. People in the streets dragged at least two of the burned bodies to a bridge over the Euphrates and publicly strung them up. Insurgents I spoke to condemned the desecration and said that the bodies of enemy combatants should be treated respectfully.
Graphic images of the incident were widely broadcast, prompting calls for revenge. The next day, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman for the occupation, gave a press conference in Baghdad in which he announced that the American response to the Falluja atrocity would “be deliberate, it will be precise, and it will be overwhelming.”
Two days later, on Saturday, April 3, an assistant of Muqtada al-Sadr was arrested and charged with involvement in the April 2003 assassination of a rival Shiite leader, Abdel-Majid al-Khoei.
Within hours, the streets of the vast Shiite sector of Baghdad known as Sadr City (formerly Saddam City) and the cities of Najaf, Kufa, Karbala, and Basra were flooded with demonstrators and armed members of al-Sadr’s militia, known as the Mahdi Army. As Iraqi police and civil-defense forces either fled or joined the insurrection, crowds overtook police stations and official buildings.
American tanks rolled into Sadr City, and in the ensuing three-day crackdown the army killed 46 Iraqis and injured 132, according to Qasim Saddam Medhour, the director of the main hospital. I visited the hospital and saw women and children as young as 10 among the dead and injured.
On Monday, April 5, the Americans made public an outstanding arrest warrant for Muqtada al-Sadr, whom Bremer called “an outlaw.” In Sadr City on April 7, a policeman, still wearing his badge, raised his pistol in the air and stood shoulder to shoulder with an AK-47-wielding member of the Mahdi Army, who declared, “Every man, every woman, every child in Sadr City will smash the head of the Americans with their shoes! All of us are behind Sadr! … All of the Iraqis will fight the Americans!”
That same day, the Marines began their “deliberate,” “precise,” and “overwhelming” response in Falluja. Over the next few days, approximately 600 Iraqis ~ some of them surely armed fighters, many others women and children ~ were killed.
Footage broadcast by Al Jazeera showed makeshift clinics where hundreds of civilians were being treated with sparse medical supplies ~ because access to the main hospital was blocked by the Marines ~ and a soccer field that had been converted to a graveyard to bury the hundreds of dead.
“The past two or three months have been equal to all my years,” Arrak told me, explaining that he’d been too busy to shave or get a proper haircut. He claimed to have moved significantly up the ladder and become a close aide to the commander of Muhammad’s Army, a consolidation of groups that emerged last October and fights under the banner of Islam.
He said he never sent a group on a mission “without going with them. This isn’t the time to sleep. We will have time to sleep the eternal sleep, and we will go to a Lord that holds us accountable.”
Arrak claimed that, since the Shiite uprisings led by al-Sadr and the Falluja massacre, as many as 75 percent of those who had come to fight were not hardened jihadists but average people “moved by their enthusiasm.”
He described one man who showed up with an R.P.G. launcher in Adhamiyya during a firefight on April 10. “The American tanks were right in front of him, we were there, and he said, ‘How do I use this?’ He carried his weapon, even though he didn’t know how to use it!,” Arrak said with a laugh that had some pity in it, shaking his head, almost unable to believe it himself.
While coalition forces portray the Iraqi resistance as a group of extremists on the fringes of society, I spoke to butchers, bakers, newspaper sellers, birdseed vendors, sandwich guys, children, and old ladies who supported the insurgency.
In the deliberate, measured tone he always used, Arrak talked about the killing of Iraqis in Falluja: “The mujahideen swear an oath: a disaster will result from this. A fire has been lit that can never be extinguished. Never. Never. [The Americans] have exceeded the limits of acceptable behavior.… If the Americans keep operating in the same way, attacking civilians, no. We will answer them in the way that they force us to answer them. If they attack civilians, we will attack civilians.… America isn’t near us, so that we can attack its civilians ~ we don’t accept doing that. Look, we’re subject to an injustice, but we don’t want to be unfair ourselves. Let them be the ones who are unfair. Not so far from now ~ doomsday is soon ~ there will be an account taken by Allah. He will take account of their actions.”
Instead of killing civilians, Arrak said, the resistance had retaliated with kidnappings. There is no official tally of the missing and kidnapped, but as many as 30 foreigners are believed to be hostages of some group or other within the insurgency. The resistance, Arrak said, hopes that the families of the hostages will put pressure on their governments to withdraw their troops, but also that the hostages might be used to trade for insurgency fighters who are among the nearly 8,000 prisoners in American custody in Iraq.
“Particularly the countries that are doing the military operations in Falluja, all of their people are a target for us, currently, via kidnapping,” Arrak said. “But if they continue with the same attitude, they will be a target for killing.… I pray to Allah that we don’t reach that stage where we kill the people who are here, because our main target is the military.”
Mounting outrage at the Americans’ treatment of Iraqis reached a breaking point at the end of April, however, with the release of photographs from Abu Ghraib prison that proved long-standing rumors of prisoner abuse.
Speaking after the scandal broke, Arrak said, “Is this freedom? If they think this is freedom and democracy, then we will follow their example. It seems that they only understand the language of force. A decision has been made. All sides of the resistance agreed. The day before yesterday there was a meeting. It’s probable that some of the Americans will be taken as prisoners, or taken as hostages. There will be no mercy shown to them. The time of the honorable war with them is finished. Though it is not our custom to treat them in the same filthy, dirty way they have treated us, we will implement Shari’a [the Islamic legal code] on them.”
Just days later, on May 11, a grisly video was released showing the decapitation of Nick Berg, a 26-year-old American telecommunications businessman, by masked men who claimed to be avenging the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
At our meeting in April, Arrak expressed cautious optimism about the Shiite uprising. “Since the occupation up until today, the [Sunni] resistance has been ongoing,” he said. “Concerning the Shia, they are resisting, and may Allah bless their efforts. But, still, [for the Sunni,] jihad depends upon each individual and his motivation. Now, if [the Shiites] receive a fatwa from al-Hawza [the council of Shiite clerics] or Muqtada al-Sadr to stop fighting, they will stop. We don’t stop. This is the only difference.…
“But we have benefited from one thing, that [the Shiites] gave [the coalition] a small picture of Iraq, or, rather, what the Iraqi man can do that wants to do something. I mean, now it’s just Muqtada’s followers, and that’s just a faction of the Shia, and they’ve achieved so much. So how will it be if the Iraqi people with all its groups and religions and all its minorities rises up together? What will happen?
“But, for us, the ones who started jihad after relying on Allah, we will continue as long as Allah destines us to live. Our goal is one thing: when our land is liberated and our lost dignity is restored, at that time we will be at peace.”
The night was growing late, and the streets of Baghdad were still unsafe, so we said a hasty good-bye, and he walked off into the darkness, hailing a taxi a hundred yards down the road.
One of the last things he told me kept running through my head. The coalition soldiers, he said, “are fighting, but they don’t know what they are fighting for. For us, we are fighting for martyrdom, no more, no less. [The soldier] will either die and go to hell and the worst fate, or he will remain here alive but live in fear. We will either be martyred ~ and this is victory for us, a victory which cannot be surpassed ~ or Allah will provide us with life and we will keep fighting jihad and be rewarded for that. So, in both cases, whether it’s in this life or the second life, we are the winners and they are the losers.”
American photojournalist Molly Bingham was briefly imprisoned in Abu Ghraib in 2003 while researching the Iraqi insurgency.