SAMARRA, Iraq — When Azadeen Abdullah Ani was buried, thousands poured out to celebrate a new martyr.
Azadeen died trying to kill American soldiers. Part of a festering and, by all accounts, widening guerrilla resistance to U.S. occupation, Ani, 44, one evening last month stood on a ramshackle market street not far from his brothers' house, pointed a grenade launcher at a convoy of U.S. military vehicles and opened fire. The Americans gunned him down immediately.
At the funeral, men fired guns into the air and shouted "Allahu akbar!" — "God is great!" — as they converged on the New Samarra Cemetery. Hours earlier, Ani's brothers had retrieved his bloodied body from the hospital morgue and put up the black posters announcing his death.
They received hundreds of neighbors paying visits to express not condolences, the brothers stressed, but congratulations.
"Everyone said they were proud of him," eldest brother Nejem said Saturday, seated cross-legged on the cushioned floor of his home.
Occupation authorities have sought to portray the fight here as part of the United States' "global war on terrorism." And although U.S. intelligence indicates that a number of foreign Islamic radicals have infiltrated Iraq through its porous borders, many of the daily attacks can easily be attributed to a fully home-grown insurgency.
The resentment against U.S. troops is so great that armed resistance has become attractive to those who might once have been allies to the American cause.
Some insurgents, such as Ani, are loyalists who had served Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. Many others are Iraqis who opposed Hussein but now oppose with equal hatred the occupation of their country by nearly 150,000 U.S.-led troops.
Whichever the case, those who die in the fight are being hailed in their native towns and villages as martyrs. They don't receive quite the adulation accorded Palestinians who die battling Israeli occupation. Lingering fear keeps the celebration muted by comparison; in Hussein's day, not only would an Iraqi who opposed authority be killed but his entire family also would be made to suffer.
Ani's house is not decorated with graffiti saluting the fallen hero, and his brothers profess ignorance at the details of his activities. Still, he is admired and, said residents in this conservative, hard-line city, an inspiration.
"We didn't cry, we didn't weep, because we believe it was God's will," Nejem said. "He died resisting. He died defending his country and honor."
Samarra, founded in the 9th century along the banks of the Tigris River, lies about 70 miles northwest of Baghdad and roughly three-quarters of the way to Tikrit, Hussein's hometown.
This section of central Iraq remains a bedrock of support for the deposed dictator and is dominated by Sunni Muslims who benefited under the former regime.
Painted on the sand-colored walls in the city are slogans declaring: "Long Live Saddam" and "No, no to America; Yes to jihad." Some of the graffiti in the center of town adorn walls facing a compound that U.S. soldiers on Saturday were busily fortifying. A military backhoe was shoveling dirt into berms used to block off the nearest city street.
Last week, an Iraqi working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army was shot dead as he arrived home. A note was left on his body vowing death to all such "collaborators."
So the elevation of Ani to heroic status is perhaps not surprising. Yet the resentment against U.S. troops is so great that armed resistance has become attractive to those who might once have been allies to the American cause.
"The shahid [martyr] is precious: You have to resist. It's a national task," said Mustafa Samarrai, a neighbor who is the nephew of Abdul Khaliq Samarrai, a politician whom Hussein accused of plotting a coup and executed.
Samarrai, the Ani brothers and others described what they see as a series of humiliations by troops: searches, raids on homes, handcuffings and, they say, public beatings by soldiers often made all the worse because the soldier is female.
Gen. John Abizaid, who heads the U.S. Central Command, said in a news conference last week that "terrorism" was becoming "the No. 1 security threat" in Iraq, especially for U.S. troops who may come under attack numerous times a day.
He said there were indications that former members of Hussein's Baath Party were beginning to cooperate with elements of Ansar al Islam, a radical group that U.S. forces crushed during the war but that has made a comeback, and other Islamic "foreign fighters."
"I think that the terrorists' cells are definitely established, primarily in Baghdad, operating through some of the western areas, and that the threat from the terrorists is increasing," Abizaid said. "It is not good for us when they get established in an urban area."
Ani, an oval-faced man with a short beard, was the father of six children, the eldest 16 years old. He was a Baath Party militant and a security agent. With the fall of Hussein, he had taken to driving a taxi and was becoming more religious, friends and family said.
His brothers say Ani worked secretly and did not share many details of his clandestine operations. It is not clear whether he belonged to a larger militia or a small cell.
People in Samarra said they were confident more Iraqis would follow Ani's lead.
"Even those supporting the Americans now, the day will come when they too are anti-American," Samarrai said.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times