Part 5: The Tongue of the Mujahideen

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After listening to a sermon by Sheikh Dhafer al-Ubeidi, a key cleric in organizing the resistance in Fallujah, the next day I returned to the mosque for a formal interview with the 37-year-old sheikh. A bevy of bony young boys hung around the mosque for no apparent reason, but were always available on command to fetch tea or water for guests. The oldest among them, a lanky, grinning 17-year-old named Ala, had been part of a delegation sent by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the army of the Mahdi, during the fighting in Fallujah that ended in May with the withdrawal of US forces.

Ala was from Baghdad's Sadr City and had worked during the fighting in the mosque's infirmary, helping the wounded. I asked him why he had come to Fallujah. "It's my country and this is also my city," he said. He was the mosque mascot, a representative of the Shi'ite mukawama, or resistance, that had helped Fallujahns in their battle, cutting American supply lines near Abu Ghraib. Former and current mujahideen stood by a fence. Muscular young men, some still with bandages covering wounds from the fighting, pulled up on Jawa motorcycles, popular with the former regime's Praetorian Guard.

Sheikh Dhafer was waiting inside for me. He would be interviewing me as well, to decide if I should be given permission to visit and work in Fallujah. The sheikh was respected for having vocally criticized Saddam Hussein, resulting in several occasions of imprisonment, but Saddam never dared execute him because he was from Fallujah. A friend of Dhafer's described him to me as "the tongue of the mujahideen", meaning he was their voice. Dhafer was the director of Aman al-ulia Lilifta, the high council for fatwas, or religious verdicts, of Fallujah. Fallujah's leading cleric, the aging Abdallah Janabi, was known as the emir, or prince, of Fallujah. As head of the Mujahideen Council, he had given Dhafer authority over the city and its fighters.

Dhafer has a wide nose and long narrow eyes that disappeared whenever he smiled, which was often, covered by round cheeks. When I asked him if he was the real leader of Fallujah, Dhafer smiled disingenuously. "I am just a simple member of the city who lived through all the suffering of Fallujah," he said. I told him I had heard he was the architect of the victory over the Americans and he grinned proudly but whispered, "Don't mention that for my security."

Dhafer admitted that he belonged to the unofficial City Consultative Council of which Taghlub al-Alusi was the head. He refused to tell me how many members the council had or who they were, but he did tell me it had a core of about 50 professionals, tribal and religious leaders and "those who stayed in the city", meaning mujahideen. When I pressed him for details about the council he laughed and squinted at me suspiciously. "What are these intelligence questions you ask me?" he said. The council appointed the team that negotiated with the Americans for a ceasefire after a month-long siege and ratified the selection of the Ba'athist officers who were placed in charge of the city's security. During negotiations, Dhafer admitted to me, he would meet with the teams and follow events. In reality, all the members were appointed with his approval and they returned to him for acceptance of the accord they reached with the Marines.

"They must withdraw from all of Fallujah, including the neighboring villages," he told me. Not satisfied with limiting the liberation to Fallujah proper, he sought to extend it to the surrounding villages, several hundred thousand more people and a much wider zone of freedom. Like all Fallujahns, he viewed time as before or after "the events". "Before April 4," he said, "the first day of the siege, all of Fallujah was closed by American troops without us knowing about it. The American administration said the siege would not open until we got the people who killed the four [US] contractors." He told me the Americans had pictures of two men alleged to have led the mob that killed them and then desecrated their bodies. "How can you punish a whole city for two men we don't even know?" he asked, adding that the city's religious leaders had condemned the mutilations (though not the killings of course).

Dhafer said that "the casualties of tanks, mortars, aircraft and everything in their arsenal, without counting the people under the destroyed buildings, was 1,200 wounded, 586 martyrs, of whom 158 were women and 86 were children". By the time fighting was over, Fallujah hospital officials would claim that up to 1,000 people had been killed, mostly women and children. At least 500 were still buried in the city's two main soccer fields and others in people's gardens. "Now all people in the world know that the US administration has no honor," Dhafer said.

Though I knew from others in the mosque that Dhafer had commanded foreign fighters in Fallujah, he denied the presence of any, telling me that "everybody knows Fallujah was the main source for the former army and its officers, including high-ranking officers, so many sent their families out and stayed to fight. This is why the American Marines that managed to destroy several South American countries in hours could not even destroy the Julan neighborhood of Fallujah. We believe God was involved in the fighting. We know we did not have equal power, but God was on our side. They demoralized us with their power and we demoralized them by shouting 'God is great' from the same mosques they were shooting at." I had seen at least four damaged manars, or mosque towers, in the city. "We demand that the manars not be repaired so that generations remember what they did."

Someone entered the office and whispered in the sheikh's ear that the Americans were approaching the city. He left hurriedly to see what was going on, so I spoke to Colonel Sabar Fadhil al-Janabi, chief of Fallujah's police force, known as the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, or ICDC, who had come to complain to Dhafer about the problems he was having with the mujahideen and seek his help. The 49-year-old former military officer had been in the police for the past nine months, but only took over control during "the events" of April. The police were involved in defending the city against the Americans, he told me, as well as evacuating wounded people and preserving law and order. He refused to answer questions about the number of police under his command, and when I pressed him he smiled and said, "This is an intelligence question," explaining that the Americans did not know and were trying to find out. He would not even provide me with a rough figure, except to say, "We have enough."

The colonel had come to seek Dhafer's assistance with the main problem he was facing. "The people wearing kafiyas who are above the law," he said, meaning the scarf-clad mujahideen. They were mistreating his forces. He asked Dhafer for his help and support in establishing the authority of his policemen. Outside, his men waited for him in civilian clothing with walkie-talkies and Kalashnikovs. They were new, replacing the old police who had fled.

Though I repeatedly tried to meet General Jassim Mohammed Salih of the Fallujah Brigade in private, I was told he was out of Fallujah in a nearby secure village, away from the mujahideen who sought to kill him. I visited another officer, General Mohammed Saleh's headquarters several times, and was told every time that he was not present, though I could see his car and driver inside. Outside his headquarters, six of his soldiers languished in a pick-up truck with its doors open to let in the breeze, should there be any. They were listening to a tape of an angry cleric sermonizing against the Americans. On the walls outside the headquarters someone had written "Allah is great, come to the jihad!" Instead of meeting the generals I talked to some of the soldiers under their command, guarding a roundabout near the train tracks. A dozen soldiers were wearing at least half a dozen different types of uniforms from the old army, though none had boots, and they wore dusty leather dress shoes instead. They told me that they did not all have boots when they served under the previous regime, and some had to buy their own boots in the market.

One man wore a jungle-patterned uniform belonging to Saddam's special forces, others had several shades of olive and khaki, as well as the old Republican Guard uniform. They mocked one man for wearing an American Army-issued uniform with the "chocolate chip" pattern, but he vehemently denied it was American, insisting it was an old Iraqi desert uniform. They were proud of their old uniforms, their lieutenant explaining to me, "We are not Saddam's army. We are soldiers for Islam and for the defense of the city." Another agreed, explaining, "We did not volunteer for Saddam but for the defense of the city and country." They had all belonged to the army before the occupation, and lost their jobs when US proconsul L Paul Bremer dismissed the army in May of 2003. They had joined the new Fallujah army when General Jassim formed it.

I asked them what they would do if Americans crossed the railroad tracks and entered the city. "They won't enter the city," I was told sharply. "We will shoot them," said another. Another man elaborated, "If Americans come inside the city we will fight them again." The lieutenant explained that "we have direct orders to fight the Americans without referring to our commanders first for permission".

Though they were currently an army belonging to the city of Fallujah, they admitted that "if the ministry of defense is formed under the authority of the Iraqi people we will join it". They saw themselves as a model for the rest of the country. "All the governorates and cities are trying to do what we did," one said to me, "we are an example." They were the first to achieve liberation, they explained, because "Fallujah is the mother of mosques and we are committed to our religion and united. Fallujahns are used to being independent and dignified. Our dignity is the most important thing to us." They were also the best-fed army in Iraqi history, with a pile of finished dishes on the grass beside them. Dhafer's Hadhra Mosque paid families to cook food for the soldiers and deliver it to them.

The following day I visited the mosque and found a new man sitting behind the desk. Haji Qasim, a former army intelligence officer, served as Taghlub's representative on an advisory council, and was, they told me "Sheikh Dhafer's right-hand man". Qasim, who received the honorific "Haji" after making the pilgrimage to Mecca, was also the founder of Fallujah's Center for the Study of Democracy and Human Rights, formed in January 2004, though in my visits I never found him studying either, only running the mosque's affairs with his assistant, Mohammed Tarik, the 32-year-old executive director of the center and a member of the town council. Tarik was a professor of the agriculture department of Anbar University, having received a master's degree in bio-technology from Baghdad University, but everybody in the mosque called him "doctor". Tarik had been present during the fighting, providing an administrative and management role for the fighters and aid workers. He admitted to me that the mosque had been a center for the mujahideen where the defense of the city was organized.

As we were talking, a fit-looking teenager on crutches hobbled in morosely. He wore a soccer uniform, but his training pants had a hole for the screws coming out of his right thigh. He had come to pick up forms from Qasim to receive compensation. An American helicopter had shot him in his car. When he saw me, a foreigner, he turned incandescent. He demanded to know who I was, what my identity was, and Tarik got up to whisper in his ear. The young man threw his forms down and walked out. The other men apologized uncomfortably, explaining what happened to him while Tarik went to talk to him.

While I was waiting for Tarik to return, 11 policemen stormed in and angrily complained to Qasim about not being paid and about the dismissal of some officers they respected. They said they were representing 351 policemen and demanded higher salaries. "Aren't you a journalist?" they shouted at me. "Record this!" Following them, a man whose car had been confiscated by the mujahideen came to complain. He had come to deliver aid from the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad when it was stolen from him. Qasim made a call and told the man where to go to pick up his car.

TOMORROW: Mean and clean streets

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