BAGHDAD, Iraq - Once reviled as the man who brought beheadings to Iraq, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is gaining support among Iraqis who are outraged over the trail of razed neighborhoods and dead civilians left by the U.S. military's anti-insurgent offensives this month.
The trademark black banner of al-Zarqawi's Monotheism and Jihad group typically hangs in the background of grainy videos that show foreign hostages in Iraq meeting grisly deaths at the hands of terrorists.
These days, the ominous flag also pops up in a Baghdad neighborhood known for daily shootouts between Islamic militants and American forces. When insurgents burned a U.S. armored vehicle there recently, locals stuffed the black banner in the vehicle's smoldering gun barrel. In an anti-American demonstration not long ago in the northwest city of Samarra, which is now the object of a joint U.S.-Iraqi military offensive, demonstrators carried the al-Zarqawi group's flag in broad daylight through public streets for the first time.
The Jordanian fugitive Abu Musab al Zarqawi (Photo/Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press)
Many Iraqis explained the fledgling support for al-Zarqawi by citing a popular Arabic proverb: "Me and my brother against my cousin; me and my cousin against a stranger."
"The banners are a reaction to what the Americans did and what they are still doing in Fallujah and Samarra, with bombings and killings," said Sheik Hassan al Niemi of the Muslim Scholars Association, a conservative Sunni Muslim group that opposes the American presence in Iraq. "Why not have foreign fighters here? When the Americans came, they didn't come alone. They brought their allies. Why is it a crime against us if other Arabs stand with Iraqis? They're our brothers."
In a crowded Baghdad square known as the Thieves' Market for its array of stolen wares, vendors said they sold at least a hundred Monotheism and Jihad hostage videos every day. Titles for sale this week included "Soldiers of God" and "Zarqawi Slaughters an American." Men of all ages snapped them up for the equivalent of 75 cents each.
"At least 25 percent of my customers now support the beheadings because it's a way to take revenge against the Americans," said a 31-year-old vendor who gave his name only as Abu Ali.
He nervously looked both ways before pulling out a collection of beheading videos he'd tucked beneath a boom box. Under a decoy label featuring a buxom Arab pop star was a DVD of some of the most grisly crimes of postwar Iraq, nearly all committed under the banner of al-Zarqawi's Monotheism and Jihad.
"If the police caught me, I'd have to pay at least $30," Abu Ali said. "I don't like selling them, but people want to see them. Personally, I think the beheadings are brutal. If you want to kill someone, just shoot him."
While social scientists and government officials say most Iraqis still bristle against the extremist brand of Islam and the shocking murders committed by al-Zarqawi's ilk, his deeds have become more palatable if not outright supported by Iraqis who already opposed the U.S. military presence and the American-backed Iraqi government. A stepped-up campaign of airstrikes against al-Zarqawi and other militants in the flashpoint cities of Fallujah and Samarra only pushed Iraqis closer to a man who was once persona non grata.
"Because Zarqawi raised the banner of resistance, they support him," said Salman al-Jumaili, a Baghdad University professor and Fallujah native who tracks Sunni insurgent groups. "They welcome anyone who is anti-American. The public trend is toward extremism because their houses and towns are under bombardment. They don't support Zarqawi himself, they support the resistance he represents."
Along Haifa Street in Baghdad, soot-stained buildings and shattered windows are lingering evidence of intense gun battles between insurgents and American troops. Banners supporting al-Zarqawi appeared after the corridor's worst showdown, when 13 residents were killed and more than 50 wounded as a U.S. helicopter fired on a crowd cheering at the scene of a burning American armored vehicle last month.
"When I come to work early in the morning, I see the banners lining the whole streets. Between each palm tree you can find one," said Tareq Younis, 23, a barber on Haifa Street. "When the Americans come, they rip them down. When the Humvees leave, we see no more banners."
None of the black flags were visible Tuesday, but one section of Haifa Street remained too dangerous for reporters to venture down. Graffiti scrawled across walls left no mystery as to local loyalties.
"We'll be happy to cut off your head, Iyad Allawi," read one message aimed at the interim prime minister. "Long live the Arab fighters!" read another.
Some residents said they didn't truly support al-Zarqawi's group, but were afraid to speak out against him. Wissam Mehdi, who sells colorful baskets from a Haifa Street shop, said insurgents frequently commandeered locals' cars to transport their wounded. He said it was common knowledge that longtime Syrian residents in the area offered shelter to visiting foreign fighters, but that no one dared report them.
"We don't know who puts up the flags, but we know they're there to provoke the Americans," Mehdi said. "When it works, innocents get killed."
Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents David George and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.
© 2004 Knight-Ridder