BAQUBA, Iraq - A mournful voice singing of dreary days and disappointing harvests drifted across a canal and onto the hidden grounds where Abu Abdullah teaches his recruits to kill.
Faded Iraqi army uniforms dried on pomegranate trees, and combat boots lined a dirt path leading into the camp. Young Iraqis picked ripe grapes and offered them to visitors. And waited for orders to attack another American convoy.
From this farm hidden among tangled grapevines and tall date palms an hour north of Baghdad, guerrilla fighters, both Iraqis and foreigners, have set out on some of the raids that have killed 70 U.S. soldiers in the past four months. The farmer’s song is a code from a lookout, to assure commanders that passing boaters can’t see the band of guerrillas preparing for their next attack on American soldiers.
At 19, Abu Mohammed, a resistant fighter, oversees a cell of young Iraqis who scout the highways around Baghdad for passing U.S. convoys to attack. (Photo/ Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)
The men here, armed with grenades and rifles, seem a ludicrous match for U.S. forces, whose superior weaponry is evident at every checkpoint in the country.
But two leaders of guerrilla cells told a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer in separate interviews that they would fight until the last vestige of the American presence in Iraq is gone. Their fate, one said, is “victory or martyrdom.”
The interviews, conducted nine days apart in late August and early September, were the most extensive to date granted by the fighters who are killing Americans, and the visit to the camp was the first by journalists covering the war here.
The first interview, with an Iraqi who identified himself as Abu Mohammed, took place in an abandoned building in Mansour, Baghdad’s most exclusive neighborhood. The second, with a Jordanian who called himself Abu Abdullah, was at the encampment near Baquba.
The two cell leaders said their fighters primarily were former Iraqi army officers and young Iraqis who had joined because they were angry over the deaths or arrests of family members during U.S. raids in the hunt for Saddam Hussein and his supporters.
The group also shelters remnants of a non-Iraqi Arab unit of Saddam’s elite Fedayeen militia force as well as foreigners who slipped across the country’s long and porous borders to battle American troops, they said. Abu Abdullah, who directs the camp near Baquba, said he came to Iraq shortly before the United States invaded it last spring.
The anti-American forces appear to be more organized than some U.S. intelligence and military officials thought. Cells receive orders and intelligence from Diyala, which lies within the northern “Sunni Triangle” of danger. According to the fighters, the Diyala leadership oversees about 100 guerrillas, including an all-women’s unit, and is backed by private donations as well as Syrian funding, according to the two cell leaders. Both said they had been told by superiors not to contact members of other cells for fear of infiltrators.
Abu Mohammed seemed confident that Saddam is directing at least some of the activity. He said he’d heard that leaders many levels above him had met recently with the fallen Iraqi leader.
Still, he said, the dictator has no chance of returning to power because of the shame of losing Baghdad and because of relatives who turned in his sons and other key figures for rewards.
“We love Saddam Hussein for one thing - he has a big mind,” Abu Mohammed said. “He knows how to think and how to plan. He made our hearts as strong as steel.”
Knight Ridder sought the interviews through Iraqi acquaintances, who spent weeks contacting other acquaintances, searching for someone with inroads to the group. The interviews themselves were arranged through an intermediary, who accompanied a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer to both, but disappeared without explanation the day an aborted third meeting was to have taken place in a new location.
In neither instance did the fighters attempt to prevent the journalists, an accompanying translator or their driver from seeing the route along which they were taken. But during the trip to the camp, the journalists’ satellite telephones were confiscated and turned off, out of concern, the intermediary said, that U.S. forces would trace the phones’ signals to pinpoint the camp’s location.
Both cell leaders said they were willing to talk because they didn’t want the story of what was going on in Iraq to be told only from the American military’s standpoint. Abu Abdullah said he wanted to tell people he didn’t consider himself a terrorist, but the enemy of “U.S. imperialism.”
American officials have said they know little of the exact makeup of the Iraqi fighters. They have linked the guerrillas both to Saddam’s Baath Party and to foreigners linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorist network.
The cell leaders themselves said they were guided by a blend of Islamist teachings and pan-Arab nationalism. Both spoke disdainfully of “Wahabbis,” as hard-line Sunni Muslim followers are called. Abu Mohammed said there was no contact with members of al Qaida at his level; Abu Abdullah broke off the interview before the question could be asked. But he said his fighters were too valuable to participate in suicide missions, a hallmark of al Qaida, and he rejected the label of terrorist.
“Can you describe a man who defends his country as a terrorist?” asked Abu Abdullah, who said he was 31. “Iraq is the land of prophets and the birthplace of civilization. We will fight until we shed the last drop of our blood for this country.”
It is impossible to verify the claims of the two men. But Abu Mohammed described two fatal ambushes of U.S. convoys that matched times, dates and locations of recent incidents recorded in American military accounts. And an explosion nearby lent credibility to Abu Abdullah’s claims after he hurriedly broke off an interview, saying his men had been ordered to ambush a U.S. convoy that had moved within range. A security report by international agencies later listed an attack on U.S. troops at about the same time and place as the explosion. One American soldier was reported injured.
'Victory or martyrdom'
Abu Mohammed, who said he was 19, called the American victory in April a humiliating defeat for his family, which has roots in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and includes several officers in the former army.
A friend of Abu Mohammed’s said the young man had an uncle among the U.S.-led coalition’s 55 most-wanted figures from the former regime, though he declined to divulge the uncle’s name or whether he is still missing.
Family connections to the Baath Party brought raids and arrests of
several relatives, Abu Mohammed said. In June, a cousin confided that he had joined the anti-American forces. Abu Mohammed said he accepted his cousin’s invitation to watch an attack and was seduced instantly by the thrill of revenge.
Nearly three months later, his loyalty and family reputation had earned him
a position as the leader of a 20-member cell that scouts the highways in and around Baghdad for passing American convoys, which he said made easy targets for rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs.
Superiors sent Abu Mohammed to meet with Knight Ridder one evening in late August to provide basic information on the Diyala umbrella group and to vet the journalists before a second meeting.
A middleman named Ahmed accompanied a reporter and photographer to the Mansour building. Ahmed paid a child standing outside a handful of Iraqi dinars, presumably to act as a lookout during the hour-long interview. Ahmed then led the way to a dim, first-floor office where Abu Mohammed sat behind a desk, wearing a tightly wrapped head scarf that revealed only his eyes.
His thin frame slumped under the weight of a Kalashnikov and a military-style vest packed with hand grenades and ammunition. His hands shook, and he explained that he was nervous because U.S. raids were growing closer to the Diyala leadership. Raids in recent weeks had resulted in the arrest of one member, he said, and two others had narrowly escaped capture.
Fear of informants restricts recruiting to family members, close neighborhood friends and military buddies, he said.
“We are Islamist in that we are protecting our religion. We are nationalist in that we are protecting our country,” Abu Mohammed said. “We don’t care about our lives. We care about the lives of our fellow Iraqis.”
Abu Mohammed’s cell relies on the Baghdad branch for information on convoy routes, checkpoints with the least security and areas with high American soldier traffic. Baghdad leaders arrange each attack and sometimes send members afterward to stand at the scene posing as onlookers to count casualties. A report then goes to the Diyala leaders, Abu Mohammed said.
One attack, he said, was scrapped at the last minute because a van carrying an Iraqi family pulled next to the targeted convoy and could have been hit by mistake. Typically, however, most attacks are carried out, and Iraqis who happen to be around are “sacrificed,” he said.
The day before an Aug. 12 attack near Taji, home to a U.S. military base just north of Baghdad, Abu Mohammed said, he and six other men scouted the area, plotting the operation and mapping the quickest escape routes. They planned to have two men on an overpass fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and other weapons. Two others, one at each end of the overpass, would serve as lookouts, another as the getaway driver and two more would guard alternate escape routes farther from the scene. Abu Mohammed said he was one of the latter two.
The day of the attack, one member recited protective verses from the Quran and the others repeated each line in unison. They drove to the site, took their positions and waited for the convoy, which the Baghdad cell told them would be carrying an important American military figure.
At about 6 p.m., Abu Mohammed said, they fired on the convoy and escaped as planned. “I don’t know how many were injured,” he said. “I saw two soldiers who looked dead.”
On Aug. 13, the U.S. military announced that one 4th Infantry Division soldier had been killed and two others had been wounded around 6:15 p.m. the previous day when their convoy was attacked “in the vicinity of al Taji.” Though the records match Abu Mohammed’s account, there’s no way to guarantee that the attack was the one he described.
Even if the U.S.-led military coalition leaves Iraq, Abu Mohammed said, his group will turn to the U.S.-appointed Governing Council as a new target. The men harbor particular disdain for Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi exile who helped spur the war with information he gave to key players in the Bush administration and to American newspaper reporters. Abu Mohammed said no exile would be safe as president; his group would accept only an Iraqi leader who “suffered like us, who was with the people” during wars and sanctions.
“I promise you,” he said. “The first day Chalabi is president, we will bomb his house no matter who is inside.”
Nine days passed before Knight Ridder was offered a second meeting, this time with a higher-ranking cell leader. The middleman from the first meeting and an unidentified member of the Baghdad cell took the same reporter and photographer down a maze of country roads an hour north of Baghdad. At one point, the car traveled directly behind an American convoy, stirring laughter and shrugs from the middleman and the Baghdad cell member.
The car stopped outside a remote, overgrown farm surrounded by a high wall.
The group entered through a padlocked side door and the men warned of snakes as they walked down a dirt path strewn with military boots, charred metal parts and tubs of freshly picked dates from the tall palm trees that cast shadows over the campgrounds. Stockpiles of canned food could be seen from the path.
At the end of the trail, a narrow canal sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. The escort from the Baghdad cell said the camp gave him a feeling of “brotherhood,” with members swimming together in the canal or racing to pick the ripest grapes. The man, who looked to be in his early 30s, offered the visitors seats on a neglected patio about 20 feet from the banks of the canal.
After a 20-minute wait, noise from the path signaled the arrival of Abu Abdullah and three other men, one of whom sported a Saddam Fedayeen logo - a winged heart - tattooed on his hand. Abu Abdullah, who wore track pants and a T-shirt, had covered his face with a black-and-white scarf, though the other men weren’t disguised.
He said he left Jordan for Iraq just before the war, when volunteers from neighboring Arab countries lined up at the borders to show their willingness to help Iraqi soldiers. He was drawn not by religious beliefs, he said, but by fear that war in Iraq would lead to Western rule of the Middle East.
He said he since had met like-minded Syrians, Egyptians and Afghans from other cells.
“I saw what the Zionists did to Palestine, how they destroyed Palestinian homes,” he said. “I told myself I could never let this happen to another Arab country. The Americans are only coming to occupy Iraq, to drain this land of its natural resources.”
At the camp, he continued, he trains recruits to operate heavy weapons and small arms such as machine guns and hand grenades. He said the recruits, who were increasing daily “from inside and outside Iraq,” were quick students because most already had military experience. The leader of the anti-American network sometimes visits the camp to encourage new recruits to fight with courage.
The men are taught to seek only military targets, and to spare civilian lives when possible. For this reason, he said, he condemns the car bombs that killed dozens of innocents recently at the Jordanian Embassy, the United Nations base in Baghdad and the Imam Ali shrine in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf. Abu Abdullah said he thought U.S. forces orchestrated the Najaf bombing to divide Sunni and Shiite Muslims by assassinating Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim, the leading Shiite cleric who died in the blast.
“Americans want to split us,” he said. “Those heretical people want to finish Islam, to kill our religion. But we know Muslims, and in our holy book it says to fight together against those who threaten Islam. So, we will fight.”
The promised hour-long interview ended after just 15 minutes, when another member whispered something in his ear. Abu Abdullah apologized profusely and excused himself. Information had arrived on a convoy that would be an easy hit as long as the fighters acted immediately, he said.
“This is from someone coming to tell us we have a mission now,” Abu Abdullah said. “We are ready to go and attack our target.” He left, and the visitors were led back to the car by Ahmed and the same escort from Baghdad.
On the way back to the main road into Baquba, an explosion so powerful it rattled the car was heard in the distance.
The men in the front seat turned to each other and smiled.
Allam reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder