Inside the resistance *LINK*
Posted By: wtnf
Date: 17, August 03, at 6:14 a.m.
The United States likes to think that all it confronts in Iraq are a few die-hard Saddamists. But Paul McGeough meets a new guerilla movement with growing popular support.
There's a knock on the door. Standing in the first-floor corridor of the Al Safeer Hotel are two men - Ahmed, a weapons dealer and group commander in the Iraqi resistance, and Haqi, one of his foot soldiers. They enter and take a seat on the sofa, edgy but full of bravado after what they claim was a successful strike against a US convoy in a rural area north of Baghdad.
They had agreed, after weeks of negotiation through a go-between, to talk about the resistance. Now they are here to recount the detail of their most recent offensive against the US occupation forces in Iraq.
Ahmed begins: "Yesterday we were told about the new movement of convoys, so we used a special car to take our RPG [rocket-propelled grenades] and guns up there. We struck at sunset, in an area surrounded by farms.
"We positioned ourselves as locals, just standing around. But as the convoy came into view we picked up the weapons which we had lying on the ground. There were 19 soldiers. I could see their faces. I fired three grenades - two at a truck and one at a Humvee. Then we escaped across the fields to a car that was waiting for us. It took just a few seconds because God makes it easy for us."
This is the third mission for Ahmed, a 32-year-old who has inherited family wealth, including a factory and a farm, and the fourth for Haqi, a 25-year-old Baghdad taxi-driver who defers to Ahmed as "my instructor".
Their claim to success is in keeping with exaggerated local accounts of the hundreds of hit-and-miss resistance attacks on the US.
I checked. At Al Meshahda, near Tarmiya, which is 60 kilometres north of Baghdad, the road is scorched and gouged. Two local farmers, brothers Muhammad and Ibrahim Al Mishadani, insist three US soldiers died when the tail-end vehicles in a convoy were hit.
But the Americans reported no deaths from Tarmiya on Tuesday.
The postwar US death toll in fighting in Iraq now stands at 60, with almost 500 wounded. The conflict is showing all the early signs of what could be a protracted guerilla war.
When he took up his commission in mid-July, the new US military chief in Iraq, General John Abizaid, acknowledged the rapid development of the resistance: "They're better co-ordinated now. They're less amateurish and their ability to use improvised explosive devices combined with tactical activity - say, for example, attacking [our] quick-reaction forces - is more sophisticated."
Washington has been reluctant to accept that what is happening in Iraq constitutes a guerilla war. It has repeatedly pinned the blame for instability on Saddam Hussein and Baath Party loyalists; and, particularly since last week's bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, on foreigners associated with the terrorist network al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
So it fell to Abizaid to finally acknowledge the Americans face a "classic guerilla-type campaign". But he, too, stuck to the Washington script, insisting the critical threat to the Americans was from "mid-level Baathists" and from an organisational and financial structure that was, at best, localised.
The Pentagon, the US military and American analysts are reluctant to acknowledge popular support for the Iraqi resistance. But the chaos has tribal sheiks, Baghdad businessmen and many ordinary Iraqis speaking in such harsh anti-American terms that it is hard not to conclude there is a growing body of Palestinian or Belfast-style empathy with the resistance.
If the accounts of the resistance given to the Herald in interviews in the past 10 days are accurate, US intelligence is way behind understanding that what is emerging in Iraq is a centrally controlled movement, driven as much by nationalism as the mosque, a movement that has left Saddam and the Baath Party behind and already is getting foreign funds for its bid to drive out the US army.
The warm night air is so heavy that, when Ahmed exhales, his cigarette smoke hangs just where he parks it. It is a week before the attack, and we are in the garden at the comfortable home of one of his relatives in a west Baghdad suburb.
Ahmed denies having served in Saddam's military or any of the security agencies. He offers a peculiar account of how he avoided military service: "I put lots of tea leaves in cold water and gulped it down so that it filled my lungs. The tea showed up as spots in my lungs and, after I paid the doctor some money, I was rejected on health grounds."
Asked why he has joined the resistance after going to such lengths to avoid doing time for Saddam, Ahmed declares: "Saddam was a loser. His wars were useless and he made enemies of our Muslim neighbours."
But this weapons dealer is uncomfortable talking war in a family environment, so he makes a call on a satellite phone, organising the use of a room in a nondescript hotel nearer to the city. Its ground-floor windows and all but one of its doors are still bricked up to fend off looters.
Slightly more at ease, Ahmed sits in a formal armchair at the hotel, the folds of his white dishdasha draped over the chair's red brocade upholstery. Toying with his beard, he describes a Sunni resistance that is a disciplined, religiously focused force. Asked where authority rests, he says: "It's with the sheiks in the mosques. Baath Party people and former members of the military are not allowed to be our leaders. Baathists are losers; they didn't succeed when they worked for the party.
"We now have a single, jihadist leadership group that operates nationally. Everything is done on instructions carried by messengers. There are 35 men in my cell and I'm a leader of three other cells. The number of foreigners who are coming to help us is increasing - Syrian, Palestinian, Saudi and Qatari.
"US claims about al-Qaeda and Ansar al Islam are just propaganda." But then he goes on: "We don't even ask the fighters if they belong to these groups or to political parties."
Speaking through an interpreter, he continues in guttural Arabic: "Our fighters are protecting our religion. We cannot allow foreigners to occupy our country."
Then he repeats the argument in much of the anti-American graffiti around Baghdad: "We suffered under Saddam and we hate him, but we would put him in our hearts ahead of a Christian or a Jew, because he is a Muslim."
This is a culture in which revenge is honourable, and Ahmed vents his opinion freely: "The Americans do not respect us, so we cannot respect them. They are a cancer of bad things: prostitution, gambling and drugs."
Haqi: "This struggle is not about Saddam. It's about our country and our God. Our aim is not to have power or to rule the country. We just want the US out and for the word of Allah to be the power in Iraq."
THIS POCKET of the resistance calls itself the Army of Right. Like others, including the Army of Mohammed and the White Flags, it first came to notice in leaflets and graffiti around the fabled Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad's Aadamiyah district.
Both Ahmed and Haqi refuse to give their real names or any information about where they live. "Iraq is my home," Ahmed says.
However, their chat is peppered with references to life on the land and a tribal background. Ahmed tells stories of dropping explosives into the Euphrates as a child to stun fish which he would then gather; and of learning how to conceal weapons in his clothing from the sheep smugglers who criss-cross the Jordan-Iraq border.
Estimates of how many resistance fighters are on call run as high as 7000, but these two will not discuss numbers.
And just as Iraqi children are being coached to lie when foreigners inquire about their parents or the whereabouts of their homes, the families of resistance fighters deny their involvement in the war.
In a far-flung Baghdad suburb, dentist Amar Abbass insists his "little brother" Ameer was armed only with his "student papers and a calculator" when he was arrested six weeks ago. But neighbours say the 20-year-old - now prisoner No. 10496 at the Baghdad Airport prison - was carrying an RPG launcher when the Americans grabbed him from the street.
Ahmed's first mission was an attack on a small US convoy near Balad, in the Tikrit region, in June. Weeks later he was part of a failed attempt to down an American helicopter at Mahmoudiya, 25 kilometres south-east of the capital.
He adopts a worldly tone as he talks about the missions: "First we watch the Americans to understand their movements. We know from the way they shoot in every direction that they are afraid."
Usually the cells operate teams of four or five - two to manage the rocket-propelled grenade launcher and two or three to provide covering fire. In most cases the identity of each fighter is withheld from the others.
Because the roots of Iraqi offence at the American presence are to be found in their tribal culture as much as in the Koran, the resistance fighters confidently rely on tribal networks for information on the Americans and for help to get away in a hurry after an attack.
Ahmed says: "The people offer us hiding places when we are in danger. They support us with words and blessings and sometimes they hide our fighters in the boot of their cars to take them to safety."
Their approach is as effective as it is simple. Usually they explode a landmine to halt an US convoy and to disorient the soldiers. Then one group of resistance fighters opens fire from one side of the road, drawing the attention of the Americans, while the men with an RPG take aim from a position about 150 metres back from the other side of the road.
Many of the fighters draw on their experience in national service under Saddam and they have acquired bomb-making and other manuals from the disbanded Iraqi military. They have been having lethal success with remote-controlled devices, including one that was floated down a river on a palm log to explode under a bridge used by the US.
On the highway south of Tikrit later in the week, a US soldier explains to me how a series of four IEDs - improvised explosive devices - had been found on a track routinely used by his convoy. The explosives were spaced at precise 25-metre intervals, the distance that separates vehicles in the American convoys.
At one of our early meetings Ahmed is irritable. He has just spent the day meeting colleagues to nut out a new problem: the Americans have started jamming the radio frequencies the resistance uses to detonate its bombs. He laughs when I ask if his group found a solution, but makes it clear he is not going to answer.
The resistance missions are opportunity-driven. Local fighters are assigned to keep up low-level attacks in their areas, maybe three or four a week. Then new cells are dispatched to areas for ambushes at a rate of three and four a day.
Ahmed claims his cells are responsible for the death of at least a dozen Americans, but there is no way to confirm this.
He declares: "The Americans say they are still looking for weapons of mass destruction. But they have found them. We are their WMD!"
Resistance weapons are stashed around the country, hidden in homes, buried in graveyards and concealed in the fringes of tall, reedy grass that grows by rivers and irrigation canals.
The US makes regular announcements of success in its efforts to block the attacks, like Operation Soda Mountain, in which, it says, 128 raids in mid-July detained 971 Iraqis - 67 described as "former regime leaders" - with the confiscation of 665 small weapons, 1356 rocket-propelled grenades, 300 155-mm artillery rounds, 4297 mortar rounds, 4.3 tonnes of C4 explosive and 563 hand grenades.
The figures are impressive. But they pale against the reality that under Saddam there were estimated to be more than 5 million AK-47s alone in the country - in a recent US-run amnesty, fewer than 100 were surrendered - and against the suggestion implicit in the figures that much of the seized weapons are from unmanageable prewar stockpiles put in place by Saddam's military which subsequently fell into the hands of the resistance.
Haggling in the country's illegal arms bazaars, the resistance never pays more than $US100 ($154) for an RPG launcher while hand grenades sell for as little as $US2. In the days after the fall of Baghdad, AK-47s could be bought for as little as $US3; today they cost about $US40.
Ahmed, whose illegal weapons business grew out of his teenage hobby of restoring guns, says: "We thank God the gun stores of the Iraqi army and the Baath Party were opened for us. But we get donations. The other day a rich man gave us an expensive SUV which we will use for carrying weapons or for observing the Americans - or we can sell it to buy more weapons.
"But we also get weapons from outside Iraq. We allowed some of the fighters to appear on the Arab TV channels because we knew that would make wealthy Arabs send aid and encourage Arab mujahideen to join us. It was a very intelligent and effective operation.
"They didn't just send money. They send fighters and ammunition; and they give us good intelligence and ideas for dealing with the Americans."
Ahmed and Haqi laugh as they describe the ease with which they are able to move weapons around Baghdad and beyond.
Ahmed: "Once I passed through three American checkpoints in a pick-up that was half-filled with explosives and weapons. They didn't even look."
Haqi: "One night I was driving during the curfew hours with a box of grenades in the car. The Americans stopped me and I told them that my wife was in the hospital. 'Go, go,' they yelled without searching the car. We thank God they are so stupid."
Despite thousands of Iraqi detentions, the Americans are still hit by a dozen or more attacks a day.
US commanders are buoyed by their history. With the glaring exception of Vietnam, they have always managed to best guerilla movements. However, the outcome of America's 16 attempts at nation building is more sobering. Germany, Japan, Panama and Grenada succeeded. But the seeds planted in 11 others, including Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, were overgrown by dictatorship, corruption and autocracy. Afghanistan remains a cot case.
And, for now, the Americans' inability to deliver the security, political and economic miracle implicit in the promised liberation of Iraq is playing into the hands of the resistance. Public anger at the US is morphing into popular support for the guerillas, creating the likelihood of a descent into prolonged cycles of violence.
Few Iraqis are present when the Americans reopen a refurbished school or hospital. But all are deeply aware that their "liberators" live a world apart, in well-provisioned, little-America bunkers, and that every time they come among the Iraqis they do so behind armour plating and with guns at the ready.
Challenged about the chaos this week, US administrator Paul Bremer urged his questioners to consider the new freedoms that Iraqis have, before firing back: "The north is quiet and the south is quiet. There is a small group of bitter-end people resisting the new Iraq. We'll deal with them.They will be killed or they'll be captured."
Ahmed loves that kind of talk. Relishing the challenge as he sits in the evening cool, beneath a date palm heavy with fruit, he says: "Before the war I was a hunter; we'd shoot pigs. Now I can't go hunting but the pigs are coming to me."
As a US surveillance helicopter flies high above us, he instantly adopts the pose of firing an RPG. "Our country has been occupied for only four months," he says, "this is just the beginning."
What seems clear is that the US has not begun to grasp the depth of Iraqi resentment and continues to feed the anger, as I note following my first meeting with Ahmed.
I have just returned to my Baghdad hotel, on Abu Nuwas Street which runs along the east bank of the Tigris, when a US Humvee roars past. Blaring from a block of six big speakers strapped to its rooftop is John Mellencamp's 1980s American anthem Pink Houses: Ain't that America? You and me! Ain't that America? Something to seeeee!
Copyright © 2003. The Sydney Morning Herald.
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