Published on Sunday, June 27, 2004 by the Telegraph/UK
New Iraqi Police Fight US Troops Who Trained Them
by Damien McElroy in Baghdad
With American fighter jets and helicopters buzzing the skies overhead, an officer in Iraq's new police force approaches a group of fighters on Fallujah's front lines with an urgent call to arms.
"I need a man who can use an RPG," says Omar, who wears the uniform of a first lieutenant. Four hands shoot up and a cry rings out: "We are ready." He chooses a young man, Bilal, and they drive to an underpass on the outskirts of the city.
There, on Highway One, an American Humvee is driving east. Bilal aims and fires his rocket propelled grenade, turning the vehicle into a smoking, twisted, metal carcass. The fate of its occupants is unknown.
First Lt Omar is sworn to uphold the law and fight the insurgency that threatens Iraq's evolution into a free and democratic state. Instead, he is exploiting his knowledge of US tactics to help the rebel cause in Fallujah.
"Resistance is stronger when you are working with the occupation forces," he points out. "That way you can learn their weaknesses and attack at that point."
An Iraqi journalist went into Fallujah on behalf of the Telegraph on Wednesday, a day on which an orchestrated wave of bloody rebel attacks across the country cost more than 100 lives.
Inside the Sunni-dominated town, he met police officers and units of the country's new army who have formed a united front with Muslim fundamentalists against the Americans, their resistance focused on al-Askeri district on the eastern outskirts of the town.
That morning, US marines had taken up "aggressive defense" positions on one side of Highway One. On the other side, militant fighters were dug in, ready for battle.
Their preparations were thorough. Along the length of a suburban street in al-Askeri, they had dug foxholes at the base of every palm tree. Scores of armed men lined the streets. Most had scarves wrapped around their heads but others wore the American-supplied uniform of Unit 505 of the Iraqi army, and carried US-made M-16 rifles. Yet more were dressed in the olive green uniforms worn by Saddam Hussein's armed forces. Since April, when a US offensive failed to crush an uprising by Islamic fighters and Ba'athist loyalists, Fallujah has been effectively a no-go area for American troops.
A newly formed, 2,000-strong force known as the Fallujah brigade, led by a Saddam-era general, Mohammed Latif, was supposed to disarm the rebels. Instead, the town remains a hotbed of resistance. Now, once again, US military pressure is being brought to bear.
Three separate air strikes have been launched on houses in the town in recent days, aimed at killing an al-Qaeda leader believed to be based in Fallujah. The Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is believed to be behind the wave of kidnappings and terror attacks across Iraq.
US officials say that they narrowly missed their target on Friday, in their most recent strike on a house where he was suspected of hiding. Up to 25 people were killed.
On the ground in al-Askeri, tension was once again rising under the US attacks. Strangers had to seek permission from the "district commander", a local imam called Sheikh Yassin who controls a broad coalition of Saddam loyalists and Islamic radicals, to move beyond the rebel lines. The sheikh, who has emerged as the neighborhood strongman since the uprising against American occupation, has used his following to unite all strands of resistance under his leadership.
His radio buzzed constantly as scouts, moving incognito in private cars, sent in reports about US positions around the suburb. The ground shook as F-16 Falcons dropped precision-guided 500lb bombs on rebel positions near the football stadium, half a mile away.
US commanders have spoken of their frustration over the Fallujah Brigade's failure to rein in rebels, and the ineffectiveness of the political deal struck with local tribes in April. "We've been prepared to pull the plug on it three or four times, but each time we detect a faint heartbeat," a senior marine officer said. To Sheikh Yassin, the supposedly anti-rebel brigade is a useful tool, providing support for his fighters. "We respect the Fallujah brigade - it never interferes against us," he says. He openly acknowledges that his coalition was a marriage of convenience, bringing together the secular Saddam faithful and Muslim fundamentalists.
The imam, who wants Iraq to be governed by Islamic law, points to one of his companions - a colonel in the disbanded Iraqi army - and asks why he is still fighting.
The colonel is blunt. "Fallujah is the starting point of the return of the Ba'ath Party," he says. "Our comrades in Baghdad and other provinces are joining our struggle. Here already we are free. No one can touch us."
In violence yesterday, a car bomb in the predominantly Shia city of Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, killed at least 15 people according to the Arabic satellite news channel al-Jazeera.
Six guerrillas and several other people were killed in Baquba, north of Baghdad, when rebels blew up the local party headquarters of Ayad Allawi, Iraq's prime minister, and attacked a moderate Shia political party's office. Another car bomb killed a man in the Kurdish city of Arbil.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004