Who exactly are the Iraqi resistance? In a remarkable essay, Ghaith
Abdul-Ahad joins the front-line anti-American fighters in Kerbala,
Falluja and Sadr City, and discovers that they are not always the
well-trained, highly motivated fanatics we imagine.
By the time
I arrive in Kerbala, in the last week in May, the clashes between
Moqtada al-Sadr's Shia militia and the Americans have been going
on for weeks. Apart from the scores of Shia militiamen running around
the streets with RPGs on their shoulders, the streets are empty.
The police have evaporated, leaving only their burned-out cars from
previous skirmishes with rebel fighters.
We park our
car on the outskirts of the shrine area. Normally, thousands of
devout Shia pilgrims from Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia would
be bustling around on buses, taxis and donkey carts, but today there
are no buses, no donkeys, and certainly no pilgrims.
The main street
leading to the shrine is terrifyingly empty, with shattered windows
and piles of garbage everywhere. As we start along the street, a
bunch of militiamen from the Badr brigade, one of the main Shia
factions, demand our press passes. They are all dressed alike -
in flip-flops, black T-shirts and pyjama pants - and all are carrying
AK47s. "I'm sorry," says one ugly militiaman. "You are not allowed
in. We have instructions not to allow journalists to take pictures
of the shrine because this will compromise the safety of the shrine."
As if the hundreds of Americans and militiamen shooting at each
other just metres from the shrine are not compromising its safety.
is the front-line elite, a bunch of badly equipped men with
rusted AKs and decade-old RPG rockets. When we first arrive
they are brewing tea, piles of RPG rockets stacked on the
walls two feet away from the fire.
We ask him
to check; after a few minutes of creaking noises from the radio,
he comes back with a big grin: no journalists allowed.
It takes us
a little while to figure out the game that we will have to play
for the next three days. The Shia factions, we work out, are very
keen not to allow journalists to go into the centre of the city
and report the activities of the other Shia factions - they are
not yet fighting each other, but they don't like each other much.
After all, it's a family issue, and we Iraqis don't like foreigners
to mess with our affairs.
So we do a
big loop and sneak through the alleys, telling the guards at every
checkpoint that we are not here for the fighting but have an appointment
with Ayatollah X, Y or Z.
come out of one alley to find ourselves face to face with three
gunmen, their heads wrapped in keffiyehs, Kalashnikovs and RPGs
in their hands (this is now considered the new Iraqi dress code,
or the "muj style"). They are the Mahdi army, a militia led by Moqtada
al-Sadr, which, according to the US army, includes highly trained
former Iraqi military officers.
I manage to
convince one of them to take us to their HQ. He puts his AK on his
shoulder and points at the end of the street - "Snipers. Run very
fast" - and we sprint across the street.
He leads us
through a maze of alleyways which make up part of the old covered
souks of Kerbala, the shops heavily barricaded with steel bars,
the streets piled with weeks' old rubbish, fighters sitting in groups
of three to five, smoking. Every once in a while someone shouts,
"Americans, Americans!", and one or two move into a sniping position,
shout at each other, and then come and sit down again. They look
tired, hungry and bored, fiddling with their RPGs and rifles.
arrive at the HQ, 50m from the shrine and a street corner where
most of the fighting has taken place in the past few days. They
take us to the "sheikh" for permission, a young guy in his early
30s with a big bushy beard who is the local Mahdi commander. I spend
the next two days with these men on a clutch of street corners from
where they take occasional pot shots at the Americans.
This is the
front-line elite, a bunch of badly equipped men with rusted AKs
and decade-old RPG rockets. When we first arrive they are brewing
tea, piles of RPG rockets stacked on the walls two feet away from
"So how long
you have been here?" I ask one of them.
now." He says he is here because he wants to defend the shrine of
Imam Ali. "I'm unemployed and have nothing else to do." He is 17.
to gather around us. "Don't talk to them." "No, do talk to them,
they must know what's happening." "Are you Americans?" "Are you
spies?" "Who sent you here?" "Take my picture." "No, take my picture
with an RPG." "No, don't let them photograph the RPGs - they'll
sell the pictures to the Americans."
are some explosions, and three of them run towards the corner. We
hear heavy machine-gun fire and I see American APCs firing at a
building in the street.
"I don't know!
You had it yesterday!"
"No, you had
"No, no, it's
there with Ali."
"He went home."
"So where is
the machine gun?"
go, there are Americans down the street," shouts one of the
kids, so we duck into a side road. The battlefield is an empty
plot of land by a mosque, surrounded by alleyways.
So they decide
to fire RPGs without machine-gun cover. They hop into the street,
fire off a grenade, and hop back. All the while we are squeezed
behind the corner. All I can think is that I have to stay alive
otherwise my girlfriend will kill me.
see what they are shooting at but shout Allahu-Akbar all the same,
and everyone starts giving numbers of how many Americans they have
man shows up, shortish and in his 40s, and while everyone is ducking
or hiding behind columns, he strolls about as if he is in the park.
Another fighter loads an RPG for him and the guy turns with the
thing on his shoulder as if looking for the direction he should
shoot in. Someone shouts: "Push him into the street before he fires
it at us!" Another fighter grabs him around his waist and pushes
him to the corner where he stands, bullets whizzing around him,
takes his time, and - boom! - fires his RPG. He stands there until
someone grips his pants and pulls him in.
His eyes are
not even blinking at the sounds around him. They give him another
one and he spins again and everyone hits the ground. Someone shouts:
"He can't hear you, go and show him!"
The deaf mute
is getting support fire from a kid who shoots off a few rounds,
then jumps back to fix his AK, which is falling apart. "If you take
a picture of me fixing this, I will kill you."
We wait for
the fire to subside and run across the street to the other side,
the same dark alleys in which the same bored fighters are sitting
doing nothing but chewing over the same old conspiracy theories.
The walls and the ground are varnished with fresh blood. In the
market a couple of shops are on fire from earlier fighting. A man
is hiding behind a pile of empty banana boxes with his eight-year-old
That is when
we catch sight of a small boy with a stunned look on his face. He
says his name is Amjad and he is 11 years old.
"How long you
have been here?"
Since my brother was killed. There, at the end of that street."
"And why are
a martyr like my brother."
I ask him why
he wants to die. "We should all die for the sake of our leader!"
shouts one of the militiamen who have gathered around us.
On the last
day, while I am trying to leave this crazy place, we are chased
by an overheated young muj ("muj", from mujaheddin, means simply
a religious fighter - since the Shia started fighting the Americans,
they too have been happy to call themselves "muj"). He demands that
we give him all our films. "You are foreigners working with the
Americans!" We tell him it's not true. He click-clicks his AK, and
points it at us. "I said, give me the films or I will shoot!"
them alone," someone calls out, "they have been with us for the
last three days, the sheikh knows about them."
leave, and head to the shrine to see if there are any pilgrims there.
As we are sitting on the pavement, three men with AKs come over
and tell us we are under arrest.
I wish I had
taped the previous conversation.
They take us
to the shrine of Imam Abbas, and into a marble-clad room filled
with big, ugly guys with thick beards and an arsenal of automatic
weapons. These men are from the Shrine Protection Force, a militia
loyal to the grand Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and so loosely
allied with the Americans.
"It is all
because of journalists that all this is happening," says a guy dressed
in black, sitting behind a big wooden table. He says that the Mahdi
are manipulating the media. "They are thugs and assassins, they
have paralysed the holy city of Kerbala, they have desecrated the
shrines and shoot from behind them, trying to provoke a response.
[thank God], the Americans are very wise and respect the shrines.
Our brothers, the Americans, are taking very good care of this thing,
but as far as the Shias around the world and in Iraq are concerned,
they hear that the Americans are fighting 'close to the shrines',
and that Shias are being killed. They see the smoke on your films
so they come en masse to fight and they are immediately brainwashed
by Moqtada and his thugs."
If that's the
case, I ask, why doesn't the Ayatollah come out publicly and denounce
those people, and show his support for these "brothers"?
"Are you crazy?
It's haram [forbidden by Islamic law] to support an infidel, even
when he is right, against a brother Muslim."
"So what is
"We will pray
for Allah to stop this."
I decide that
Allah has a few other things to solve in Iraq first.
In any case,
once they discover that we are photographers and not video cameramen,
the detention comes to an end pretty quickly. And I decide to stop
chasing bullets and RPGs and find somewhere calm. So I resolve to
head to Falluja - after all, the Americans have managed to install
peace over there, haven't they?
very calm by the time I arrive. I have been to Falluja once before,
in April during the "great battle", as they now call it up there.
Back then it was like Apocalypse Now, with muj running in the streets
and American marines firing at any house they suspected had "enemies"
inside. Falluja is a peaceful town now; shops are open and cars
are in the streets, and Iraqi security forces are every where: ICDC
(the US-trained civil defence corps), policemen, traffic police,
and the new Falluja brigade, known as the "brigade of the heroes"
by the locals. You can even say that things are normal.
After a devastating
military campaign that left more than 800 Iraqis dead, the US liberators
established the Falluja brigade out of the former military, some
of whom had been fighting the Americans but are now on their payroll.
Falluja is now like a deja vu from the good old times of Saddam;
there are so many former Iraqi military in khaki uniforms, big moustaches
and bellies that I am scared that someone will come up and ask me
for my military ID card.
But, as everything
in the new Iraq, the picture is totally blurred, and no one in Falluja
can figure out what the new arrangement actually means. For some
Fallujans, it meant that their people would get paid again and they
would be in charge of their own security without being seen as collaborators.
For the Americans it meant the new force would work with them to
enforce law and order in the city, helping to build a new Iraq.
But for other
Fallujans, he who works with Americans is seen as the enemy of God.
Which means that we now have Falluja versus Falluja in the biggest
stand-off of the year: who really controls Falluja?
The city is
now like a loose federation of Sunni mosques and mujaheddin-run
fiefdoms. These have become the only successfully functioning "civil
society" institutions, although the only form of civil society they
are interested in is a 1,400-year-old model.
So they raid
houses where sinners are believed to be drinking alcohol, and insist
on forcing their own version of the hijab. If you have a record
shop in Falluja, it had better be selling the latest version of
Koranic chanting; Britney Spears could get you flogged.
other Fallujans, he who works with Americans is seen as the
enemy of God. Which means that we now have Falluja versus
Falluja in the biggest stand-off of the year: who really controls
A bunch of
Falluja kids, just finishing their exams, are hanging around their
school when two muj trucks surround them and pick up all the kids
who don't have a "decent" hair cut. They will be taken to get their
heads shaved. (Bear in mind that we are talking about Falluja, which
is already one of the most conservative towns in Iraq. There aren't
too many funky haircuts here to begin with.)
As I arrive
at the main entrance to the city, two shaking Iraqi ICDC are handing
flyers to Fallujans driving into the city. The leaflets are designed
to advise how to file a complaint for compensation, and to reassure
them about what the Americans are up to: "The marines came here
originally to help the people of Falluja, and they will work together
to defeat the enemies of the Iraqi people."
I head towards
one of the mosques where people are going to get aid and charity
donations. A guy in his 40s approaches me with the famous welcoming
smile of the Fallujans - a look of, "What the fuck are you doing
I tell him
that I'm a journalist and would like to meet the Sheikh.
"How did you
manage to get in? Didn't they stop you at the checkpoint?"
is talking about the marines' checkpoint, I say, "No, everything
"Did they see
your camera?" I tell him I was hiding it.
"This Abu Tahrir,
I don't know what kind of mujaheddin cell he is running! I told
him that every car should be thoroughly searched and all journalists
should be brought here!"
I am ushered
inside where, surrounded by three muj fighters, the new mayor of
Falluja gives me his geopolitical analysis of the American plot
to control the world by occupying Falluja. "You know, we were all
very happy when the Americans came, we thought our country would
be better with their help, but Allah the Mighty wasn't pleased,"
he tells me. The Americans started making mistakes, he explains,
and now, "It's all Allah's plot to stop the believers from dealing
with infidel foreigners."
He opens his
drawer and pulls out two sheets of paper: the demands and the strategies
of the resistance. One details an American-Shia plot to kill the
Sunni clerics, technocrats and former army officers. "Be careful,
oh brothers, because the Americans and their traitor allies, the
Kurds and the Shias, are planning to come after your leaders." The
other is a letter sent by the joint committee for the Iraqi resistance
to Lakhdar Ibrahimi, the UN envoy working to form a new government.
Its demands can be summarised as a request to hand Iraq to a bunch
of wacko Sunni army generals.
is interrupted many times, once when a small kid comes into the
room and everyone stands to shake his hand. "He is our best sniper
here. He has killed three Americans, he wants to call the Americans
out for a sniping competition."
One of the
local muj cell leaders, Abu Tahrir ("father of liberation"), is
complaining how part of the muj corps has deserted and joined the
Americans. He is in his late 30s, overweight and a bit grim; a typical
former mukhabarat officer who mixes bits of the Koran with chunks
of nationalist and Ba'athist ranting.
later, another muj comes into the room complaining that different
muj groups haven't shown up to take their positions. The mayor makes
a few phone calls using his mobile phone - "We have cellphones now,
you know" - before returning to his thesis of where the American
invasion went wrong. "The Iraqi army has been staging coups and
counter-coups from 1958 to 1968; it was the army who managed to
get everything under control, instead of those stooges on the governing
council. The Americans should have counted on the real Iraqis" -
and so on, until the muj who brought me in comes back and says:
"You have to leave now. The commanders of the mujaheddin cells are
going to have a big meeting in Falluja in 15 minutes, and soon there
will be muj checkpoints everywhere." As we leave the mosque,
he waves to a passing police car and orders them to follow, so that
we drive out of Falluja escorted by both the muj and the police.
City in eastern Baghdad
Sadr City is
an easy job for a journalist: all you have to do is cruise around
looking for trouble. It is a Soweto kind of slum: rubbish-filled
streets, ponds of sewage, and thousands of unemployed kids.
It is Saturday,
and we are driving through the streets for the second time in the
day. It is late afternoon when we see a bunch of kids directing
the traffic away. By now we are able to sniff trouble from miles
away, but I tell my driver to head to that street. Makeshift barricades
are laid in the middle of the road, made of stones, tyres and chunks
of car metal. Someone's house has even been dismantled for the barricade.
there are Americans down the street," shouts one of the kids, so
we duck into a side road. The battlefield is an empty plot of land
by a mosque, surrounded by alleyways.
In one of them,
a dozen teenagers, three or four of them wearing Arsenal T-shirts
and flip-flops, are emptying a car boot of a mortar tube and a sackful
of shells. I am allowed to stay and take pictures, but with the
usual proviso: "If we discover that you are working for the Americans,
we will kill you."
is a police station and three Humvees parked in front. Masked like
a western cowboy, the shooter, or the "expert" as they call him,
takes measure of the angle and shouts to another fighter: "Give
me one!" The other guy produces what looks like a rusted, 2-ft long
shell. The fighters here are also Mahdi, and the fighting in Sadr
City often feels like one big carnival. All the kids are by now
doing their cheering chant: "Ali wiyak, Ali!" "Ali with you, Ali!"
If I were an American soldier, I would be expecting a flying shell
every time I hear kids cheering in Sadr City. After all, this is
the only fun they get, shooting at the sitting ducks.
tosses the shell into the barrel, and a big explosion follows. "Right
a bit!" shouts one of the kids at the end of the street. "It fell
on a house!"
one falls much too far to the left. "It fell on another house, move
to the right a little bit!"
The third one
falls something like 10 metres away from us, but doesn't explode.
The fourth lands by the Americans, and detonates. "Ten dead, I saw
it with my own eyes!" shouts another kid. The fifth doesn't leave
the tube, and he has to up-end the tube and shake it.
In all, the
firefight lasts for an hour, at which, after a few more rounds and
a few more civilian houses destroyed,the fighters jump into their
car and drive away.
meeting is interrupted many times, once when a small kid comes
into the room and everyone stands to shake his hand. "He is
our best sniper here. He has killed three Americans, he wants
to call the Americans out for a sniping competition."
Then the RPG
session starts, kids aiming at the Americans and hitting whatever
target they fancy. As one prepares to fire his RPG, the rusted rocket
can use mine," says a man who is standing by, watching. Helpfully,
he goes to his nearby home and returns with his RPG, as if he were
lending a neighbour his Hoover.
are coming, they are coming!" and everyone starts to run; the 50
or so kids who have gathered to watch the game, break into a sprint.
We jump into the first open door, where a man pulls us inside and
closes the door.
The house is
nothing but two rooms and an open courtyard; home to two families
with countless tiny kids. "So they shoot and run, and soon the Americans
will come and start breaking into the houses and firing at us,"
says the man.
Within a few
minutes we hear a Humvee pull up by the door, and - boom! boom!
boom! - they start firing what sounds like a heavy machine gun.
Everyone jumps to the ground, and Ali is asked once again to show
his mercy upon us. "This has been our life for the past few weeks;
we don't know when we will be killed and who will kill us," says
the father. After a while the Humvees go, and we hear the sound
of the kids in the streets again. Everything back to normal.
after another session of shooting and counter-shooting, we are sitting
with the fighters by the office of Moqtada al-Sadr. We are prepared
for a long night waiting for American mortar shells. I think to
myself, here we go, another dozen houses gone.
A young muj
extends his hand and says: "Do you want a beer?" I am stunned, and
what remains of my religious belief rapidly evaporates. But the
beer is good and I sit all night with the great religious fighters,
drinking beer and waiting for the shells that never come.
in The Guardian, June 25, 2004.
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