Part 4: All Power to the Sheikh


On Friday, March 14, I pulled up to the mosque of Sheikh Dhafer al-Ubeidi, a key cleric in organizing the resistance in Fallujah, along with Abdallah Janabi. Hadhra Mosque lies inconspicuously across the street from the Rahma Hospital, where two days before I had attended a poetry festival staged to celebrate US forces pulling out of the city after a month-long siege. Fallujah is known as medinat al-masajid or the city of mosques, for its 80 mosques, but Hadhra Mosque is small and modest compared with others in the city, its colors faded, its dome small. But if there is a final authority for the resistance in Iraq, a command and control center, this is it.

I had been warned that Dhafer ran the city, and to operate in it I would need his "clearance". Other journalists who had not done so were held up by armed gangs. A writer for a leading US newspaper was caught at a checkpoint attempting to disguise his face with a woman's black veil. Another writer for a top US magazine was held after coming out of the marine base in an armored car, with an armed driver, bulletproof vest, US passport with Israeli stamps and a receipt from the Israeli-Jordanian border crossing in his pocket. My contact in Fallujah was asked by Dhafer to confirm whether these and other foreigners held by local militias were in fact journalists. I was hoping to get a piece of paper from the sheikh that would be a license to work in the city.

As I got out of the car in front of the mosque, a big explosion shook the city, and in the distance I could see a large mushroom cloud growing, and then being dispersed by the wind. Probably a mortar converted into a roadside bomb. The police car in front of the mosque veered off to take a look. On the tall fence lining the mosque, a banner announced, "Sunnis and Shi'ites are committed to defeating the Zionist plan." It did not explain what plan was being referred to; apparently the locals already knew. The white paint was peeling off of the rusted gate. A sign above the gate bore the title al-Hadhra Muhamadia Mosque and Madrassa (religious school). The mosque's manar, or tower, was damaged from a US shell.

Leaflets and announcements were taped on to the gate. One said that "the fatwa [religious verdict] council asks for pictures and evidence of occupation forces violating human rights and any attack on our values and our Islamic symbols. Please give them to the council in the Hadhra Mosque." Another one contained a long verse dedicated to a man martyred by the Americans. An announcement from the Telecommunications Ministry reminded people not to pay telephone repairmen, who were salaried by the ministry. Another one from the qaimaqamia (an old Ottoman word for "city hall") instructed people about what documents they should bring "to receive compensation for martyrs, and wounded people, and damaged vehicles". A similar one asked the families of martyrs to go to the courts to get a death certificate and then to the hospital to get additional proof of death in order to process their compensation claims.

Finally an announcement from the Mujahideen Council declared that "imams [mosque leaders] are responsible for their mosques and the mujahideen have no rights to interfere in mosques after today". It added that "some thieves go to markets, confiscating goods and money and consider themselves mujahideen, but they are liars and we ask the people of the city of mosques to catch these people and educate them [forcefully] and the mujahideen will support them to prevent strife in our city".

Past the security guards a tall palm tree provided a bit of shade on the path to the mosque's office. The windows of the mosque and its offices were still crossed with tape to prevent shattering from fighting. Inside the office I found an acquaintance I had known in Baghdad a year before, Taghlub al-Alusi, a gentle elderly man, tall and dignified, with sharp lines on his face. He was born on Alus, an island in the Euphrates River to the north, but he had lived in Fallujah for 42 years until moving to the United Arab Emirates in the late 1990s, where he worked as an engineer.

I had met Taghlub in Baghdad's Sunni stronghold Adhamiya on a visit to the offices of the National Unity Movement, a party established by Iraq's most famous living Sunni thinker, Dr Ahmad Kubeisi. Kubeisi's movement had been the great hope of Iraq's Sunnis, and I had followed it closely since he returned from a self-imposed exile in the UAE that had started in 1998 and ended with a triumphal Friday sermon in the Abu Hanifa Mosque, Iraq's main Sunni mosque, in Baghdad's Adhamiya district. For this sermon, hundreds of people had stood and knelt barefoot outside the packed mosque. On top of its walls young men held banners proclaiming "one Iraq, one people", "we reject foreign control", "Sunnis are Shi'ites and Shi'ites are Sunnis, we are all one", "all the believers are brothers", and similar proclamations of national unity.

Kubeisi's sermon that followed prayers was unique for its nationalism. Baghdad had been occupied by the Mongols, he said, referring to the sacking of the capital of the Muslim world in 1258. Now new Mongols were occupying Baghdad and they were creating divisions between Sunnis and Shi'ites. However, the Shi'ites and Sunnis were one and they should remain united and reject foreign control. They had all suffered together as one people under Saddam Hussein's rule. Saddam oppressed all Iraqis and then he abandoned them to suffer.

I continued following Kubeisi after he formed his unity movement. Last summer he spoke in Baghdad, condemning the attacks against American soldiers because they were premature and should not begin until it was seen whether or not the Americans acted on their promise to leave as soon as possible. Kubeisi admitted that Sunnis were pushed aside because the United States viewed them as hostile and that the Shi'ites were the temporary victors. Speaking in Samara last summer, Kubeisi prohibited attacks against Americans. "We waited 35 years under Saddam and we should give the Americans a year before we fight them and tell them to leave," he said. Kubeisi was based in the UAE state of Dubai and traveled back and forth between there and Baghdad. According to his supporters, he was informed by the Americans that he would be denied re-entry to Iraq.

Taghlub, my acquaintance, had worked with Kubeisi's movement for three months, but left because "I found them inefficient". He told me Kubeisi was now "sleeping in Dubai" after being threatened by the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council, the Americans and the armed Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Taghlub's son Mohammed was a religious student in the mosque and helped his father in administering it. When I mentioned Kubeisi's movement he shook his head. "It was a failure," he said. Taghlub's older brother, Sheikh Hisham al-Alusi, had once led Hadhra Mosque, but after being seriously injured in an assassination attempt he was confined to a wheelchair and was too feeble to move on his own, so he appointed Dhafer as his replacement. According to a Coalition Provisional Authority official who met with Taghlub often when Taghlub led the negotiations that ended in US forces withdrawing and handing power over to Fallujans, Taghlub was a leader of the resistance in Fallujah.

Removing my shoes and leaving them by the door, I was escorted into a sparse office and seated on an old sofa. I was offered a glass of water. Taghlub completed his conversations with callers and sat close to me, the deep lines on his face giving him an even more distressed look than normal. He was very worried about the Americans having entered Karbala that day. "It's holy for us too," he said of the shrine city containing the tombs of Hussein and Abbas, two of the Prophet Mohammed's grandchildren. "They are our forefathers," he explained, rejecting any hint of Sunni-Shi'ite conflict.

A continuous stream of visitors came to see the town leaders present in the office, to ask for help and hold whispered conversations. Abdel Basit Turki, the former interim human rights minister, entered with a small entourage, including three clerics from Samara and a local tribal sheikh. Dressed in an elegant suit, the tall man had come to pay his respects and receive the gratitude of the town's leaders. Turki is from western Iraq, born in Haditha, a town to the north of Fallujah, though when I asked him where he was from he only smiled and said, "I am an Iraqi."

Turki was an economics professor who never left Iraq under Saddam's regime. He served as minister from August 30, 2003, until April 8 this year, when he resigned to protest US actions in Fallujah. "I resigned because the American military used force to solve problems that could be solved by referring to the Iraqi people," he told me, adding, "Their attitude to the Iraqi citizens makes the future of human rights in Iraq insecure." He complained about "Americans using Apaches to raid Sadr City, besieging Fallujah and even using fighter jets against the city, converting homes into mass graves. As minister of human rights I had to resign to show the people I identified with them." He complained that his challenge had been twofold, dealing with "the former regime's human-rights violations and the violations resulting from the occupation by foreign troops. My main challenge [is] to educate people about human rights during an occupation. You cannot educate people about human rights when they are being bombed and killed." He added that he had received pressure from the Americans to deal only with human-rights violations of the previous regime.

Turki's companion, Sheikh Ahmad, from the mosque of Risala al-Muhamdia in Samara, a city to the north of Baghdad, had also come to pay his respects to Iraq's first liberated city. "What happened in Fallujah is expected to happen in other cities in Iraq," he told me, predicting an intifada shaabia (people's uprising). "All the people of Iraq will erupt in revolution, and at that moment it will make no difference if you are Sunni or Shi'ite," he said.

A 12-year-old boy entered the room, to the delight of the mosque's leadership. They introduced him as Saad, a brave boy who had fought as a capable sniper during the battle with the Americans. He was hugged and kissed by all the men in the room, who congratulated him for being a batal, or hero. Already a seasoned scrapper, he smiled proudly, and thanked them in a hoarse adult voice with the confidence of a grown man. He was insolent to the older and bigger boys, who seemed scared of him. I was nervous around him too - he reminded me of a rabid pit bull. After prayers I saw him lingering outside the mosque, slinging a Kalashnikov with the magazine inside, providing security.

Sheikh Hisham al-Alusi was wheeled in and the men came over to kiss him on the head, and praise Allah for his recovery. He explained that he had been shot three months before. "They shot 30 bullets at me, but only one entered my body," he explained. It was his first day back at the mosque, and Dhafer deferred to him, letting him take the desk. Hisham was pale and spoke in a whisper. He had been a member of the US-backed town council and had eschewed incitements of violence. Two masked men in a car pulled up next to him when he was leaving the Hadhra Mosque and shot him. The people in the mosque told me he had been shot by the resistance, apparently either out of a desire to hide the fina, or internal strife in their community, very typical of Muslim clerics, or simply to pin the blame on the Americans. When I confronted a source about having been lied to, he told me implausibly that the assailants were in fact US agents.

Soon after, General Jassim Mohammed Salih of the Fallujah Brigade walked in, wearing a white dishdash and white scarf. After exchanging greetings with the guests in the increasingly crowded office, he briefed them on the latest political events, barking gruffly in clipped military style, his jowls shaking, as he fingered yellow prayer beads. "I spoke to Brahimi yesterday and he says hi to all of you," he said, referring to United Nations representative to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi. He then defended the need for the Fallujah army he did or did not command, depending on whether one listens to Fallujans or Americans. "Everybody else has militias and it's not called terrorism," he said, "but when an army defends its city this is called terrorism." Jassim stressed the central role of the army, explaining that "the army is the people's, not Saddam's, and anybody who comes in and attacks the institution of the army finds half a million people carrying guns against him". "Even Saddam," smiled Dhafer. I left to allow the unofficial town council to meet in private.

Returning to the mosque for Friday prayers, I removed my shoes again and walked over the prayer mats spread outside to accommodate the crowds overflowing from inside the mosque, and sat in the small garden beneath a palm tree. Taghlub's son Mohammed informed me that I was not allowed to record Dhafer's khutba, or sermon. "It is a special khutba for the people of Fallujah only," he explained. It was the first time in 13 months in Iraq that I had been told not to record a sermon.

Dhafer stood at the mosque's pulpit and from outside I could only hear him on the loudspeakers. His raspy voice was angry and high-pitched from the beginning. As is the convention, Dhafer began with a general discussion of religion, then became increasingly specific and political. "We told you last Friday and we are still telling you that after God gives you victory and safety you have to fight fitna," (internal strife, the greatest evil in the Islamic community). Using an interesting metaphor since Islam prohibits card-playing, he told his followers, "We have seen all of our enemy's cards." He condemned the Iraqi Governing Council members "who sit with the Americans".

"Everybody hates America now because of the policies of President [George W] Bush," he said, "and his own people condemn him, so what can we do? What can we say? What are the limits of our response? What are the rights of the Iraqi people?" He then answered his queries, saying there was no action the Iraqis could not take against the Americans. "They slaughtered the Geneva Accords that we were insisting upon every Friday in our mosques, and they killed human rights. This is the tragedy of the Islamic world that we experience here in Iraq, but the gates of victory for all the Islamic world have been opened in Fallujah and victory will never stop as our Prophet has predicted. All the world can recognize now that Fallujah beat the US. This is Islam our religion and state, this is the Islam of Mohammed." Dhafer warned that "after the enemy lost his battle with us he has begun planting strife and spreading rumors".

Referring to an issue of great concern in the city, as demonstrated by one of the leaflets on the mosque's gate, Dhafer turned to the unruly mujahideen. "Some people are surprised sometimes with mistakes that some people make," he said, "but I swear by God the mujahideen are innocent from those mistakes. It's a big shame on some people who claim they are mujahideen yet they make many checkpoints in several places and steal cars or kidnap people in those places. They are not mujahideen. It looks like they were educated by our enemies [the Americans]. They went into a neighborhood in our city and they did what the Americans did, forcing people to lie on the ground, spreading their legs and putting their feet on their heads: what religion is this?" Dhafer urged the mujahideen to be more pious.

Alluding to the extrajudicial killings of alleged spies for the Americans, whom he called "the traitors who sold their religion and their honor and their land and they became apostates", the sheikh reminded his people that "the accused is innocent until proven guilty". He urged people to support the town's security forces. "The police must take more authority than they have until now," he said. "Policemen should not be lazy and civil defense should do their jobs, as should the elected army." Dhafer concluded with a prayer for the mujahideen and martyrs in Najaf and Karbala.

TOMORROW: The tongue of the mujahideen

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