[Reader-list] Who are the Iraqi resistance ?
karim at sarai.net
Tue Jul 20 17:27:28 IST 2004
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Read this excellent article by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad on Iraq - reminded me
in a macabre way of the slightly hysterical chaos that sometimes erupts
backstage in school plays...
"Who exactly are the Iraqi resistance? In a remarkable essay, Ghaith
Abdul-Ahad joins the front-line anti-American fighters in Kerbala,
Falluja and Sadr City, and discovers that they are not always the
well-trained, highly motivated fanatics we imagine
'This is the only fun the kids get - shooting at the US sitting ducks'
Who exactly are the Iraqi resistance? In a remarkable essay, Ghaith
Abdul-Ahad joins the front-line anti-American fighters in Kerbala,
Falluja and Sadr City, and discovers that they are not always the
well-trained, highly motivated fanatics we imagine
Friday June 25, 2004
By the time I arrive in Kerbala, in the last week in May, the clashes
between Moqtada al-Sadr's Shia militia and the Americans have been going
on for weeks. Apart from the scores of Shia militiamen running around
the streets with RPGs on their shoulders, the streets are empty. The
police have evaporated, leaving only their burned-out cars from previous
skirmishes with rebel fighters.
We park our car on the outskirts of the shrine area. Normally, thousands
of devout Shia pilgrims from Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia would be
bustling around on buses, taxis and donkey carts, but today there are no
buses, no donkeys, and certainly no pilgrims.
The main street leading to the shrine is terrifyingly empty, with
shattered windows and piles of garbage everywhere. As we start along the
street, a bunch of militiamen from the Badr brigade, one of the main
Shia factions, demand our press passes. They are all dressed alike - in
flip-flops, black T-shirts and pyjama pants - and all are carrying
AK47s. "I'm sorry," says one ugly militiaman. "You are not allowed in.
We have instructions not to allow journalists to take pictures of the
shrine because this will compromise the safety of the shrine." As if the
hundreds of Americans and militiamen shooting at each other just metres
from the shrine are not compromising its safety.
We ask him to check; after a few minutes of creaking noises from the
radio, he comes back with a big grin: no journalists allowed.
It takes us a little while to figure out the game that we will have to
play for the next three days. The Shia factions, we work out, are very
keen not to allow journalists to go into the centre of the city and
report the activities of the other Shia factions - they are not yet
fighting each other, but they don't like each other much. After all,
it's a family issue, and we Iraqis don't like foreigners to mess with
So we do a big loop and sneak through the alleys, telling the guards at
every checkpoint that we are not here for the fighting but have an
appointment with Ayatollah X, Y or Z.
We finally come out of one alley to find ourselves face to face with
three gunmen, their heads wrapped in keffiyehs, Kalashnikovs and RPGs in
their hands (this is now considered the new Iraqi dress code, or the
"muj style"). They are the Mahdi army, a militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr,
which, according to the US army, includes highly trained former Iraqi
I manage to convince one of them to take us to their HQ. He puts his AK
on his shoulder and points at the end of the street - "Snipers. Run very
fast" - and we sprint across the street.
He leads us through a maze of alleyways which make up part of the old
covered souks of Kerbala, the shops heavily barricaded with steel bars,
the streets piled with weeks' old rubbish, fighters sitting in groups of
three to five, smoking. Every once in a while someone shouts,
"Americans, Americans!", and one or two move into a sniping position,
shout at each other, and then come and sit down again. They look tired,
hungry and bored, fiddling with their RPGs and rifles.
Finally, we arrive at the HQ, 50m from the shrine and a street corner
where most of the fighting has taken place in the past few days. They
take us to the "sheikh" for permission, a young guy in his early 30s
with a big bushy beard who is the local Mahdi commander. I spend the
next two days with these men on a clutch of street corners from where
they take occasional pot shots at the Americans.
This is the front-line elite, a bunch of badly equipped men with rusted
AKs and decade-old RPG rockets. When we first arrive they are brewing
tea, piles of RPG rockets stacked on the walls two feet away from the fire.
"So how long you have been here?" I ask one of them.
"Three weeks now." He says he is here because he wants to defend the
shrine of Imam Ali. "I'm unemployed and have nothing else to do." He is 17.
Others start to gather around us. "Don't talk to them." "No, do talk to
them, they must know what's happening." "Are you Americans?" "Are you
spies?" "Who sent you here?" "Take my picture." "No, take my picture
with an RPG." "No, don't let them photograph the RPGs - they'll sell the
pictures to the Americans."
Suddenly, there are some explosions, and three of them run towards the
corner. We hear heavy machine-gun fire and I see American APCs firing at
a building in the street.
"Where's the machine gun?"
"I don't know! You had it yesterday!"
"No, you had it!"
"No, no, it's there with Ali."
"He went home."
"So where is the machine gun?"
So they decide to fire RPGs without machine-gun cover. They hop into the
street, fire off a grenade, and hop back. All the while we are squeezed
behind the corner. All I can think is that I have to stay alive
otherwise my girlfriend will kill me.
They can't see what they are shooting at but shout Allahu-Akbar all the
same, and everyone starts giving numbers of how many Americans they have
Then another man shows up, shortish and in his 40s, and while everyone
is ducking or hiding behind columns, he strolls about as if he is in the
park. Another fighter loads an RPG for him and the guy turns with the
thing on his shoulder as if looking for the direction he should shoot
in. Someone shouts: "Push him into the street before he fires it at us!"
Another fighter grabs him around his waist and pushes him to the corner
where he stands, bullets whizzing around him, takes his time, and -
boom! - fires his RPG. He stands there until someone grips his pants and
pulls him in.
His eyes are not even blinking at the sounds around him. They give him
another one and he spins again and everyone hits the ground. Someone
shouts: "He can't hear you, go and show him!"
The deaf mute is getting support fire from a kid who shoots off a few
rounds, then jumps back to fix his AK, which is falling apart. "If you
take a picture of me fixing this, I will kill you."
We wait for the fire to subside and run across the street to the other
side, the same dark alleys in which the same bored fighters are sitting
doing nothing but chewing over the same old conspiracy theories. The
walls and the ground are varnished with fresh blood. In the market a
couple of shops are on fire from earlier fighting. A man is hiding
behind a pile of empty banana boxes with his eight-year-old son.
That is when we catch sight of a small boy with a stunned look on his
face. He says his name is Amjad and he is 11 years old.
"How long you have been here?"
"Ten days. Since my brother was killed. There, at the end of that street."
"And why are you here?"
"To become a martyr like my brother."
I ask him why he wants to die. "We should all die for the sake of our
leader!" shouts one of the militiamen who have gathered around us.
On the last day, while I am trying to leave this crazy place, we are
chased by an overheated young muj ("muj", from mujaheddin, means simply
a religious fighter - since the Shia started fighting the Americans,
they too have been happy to call themselves "muj"). He demands that we
give him all our films. "You are foreigners working with the Americans!"
We tell him it's not true. He click-clicks his AK, and points it at us.
"I said, give me the films or I will shoot!"
"No, leave them alone," someone calls out, "they have been with us for
the last three days, the sheikh knows about them."
Shaking, we leave, and head to the shrine to see if there are any
pilgrims there. As we are sitting on the pavement, three men with AKs
come over and tell us we are under arrest.
I wish I had taped the previous conversation.
They take us to the shrine of Imam Abbas, and into a marble-clad room
filled with big, ugly guys with thick beards and an arsenal of automatic
weapons. These men are from the Shrine Protection Force, a militia loyal
to the grand Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and so loosely allied with
"It is all because of journalists that all this is happening," says a
guy dressed in black, sitting behind a big wooden table. He says that
the Mahdi are manipulating the media. "They are thugs and assassins,
they have paralysed the holy city of Kerbala, they have desecrated the
shrines and shoot from behind them, trying to provoke a response.
"But, alhamdulillah [thank God], the Americans are very wise and respect
the shrines. Our brothers, the Americans, are taking very good care of
this thing, but as far as the Shias around the world and in Iraq are
concerned, they hear that the Americans are fighting 'close to the
shrines', and that Shias are being killed. They see the smoke on your
films so they come en masse to fight and they are immediately
brainwashed by Moqtada and his thugs."
If that's the case, I ask, why doesn't the Ayatollah come out publicly
and denounce those people, and show his support for these "brothers"?
"Are you crazy? It's haram [forbidden by Islamic law] to support an
infidel, even when he is right, against a brother Muslim."
"So what is your strategy?"
"We will pray for Allah to stop this."
I decide that Allah has a few other things to solve in Iraq first.
In any case, once they discover that we are photographers and not video
cameramen, the detention comes to an end pretty quickly. And I decide to
stop chasing bullets and RPGs and find somewhere calm. So I resolve to
head to Falluja - after all, the Americans have managed to install peace
over there, haven't they?
Falluja is very calm by the time I arrive. I have been to Falluja once
before, in April during the "great battle", as they now call it up
there. Back then it was like Apocalypse Now, with muj running in the
streets and American marines firing at any house they suspected had
"enemies" inside. Falluja is a peaceful town now; shops are open and
cars are in the streets, and Iraqi security forces are every where: ICDC
(the US-trained civil defence corps), policemen, traffic police, and the
new Falluja brigade, known as the "brigade of the heroes" by the locals.
You can even say that things are normal.
After a devastating military campaign that left more than 800 Iraqis
dead, the US liberators established the Falluja brigade out of the
former military, some of whom had been fighting the Americans but are
now on their payroll. Falluja is now like a deja vu from the good old
times of Saddam; there are so many former Iraqi military in khaki
uniforms, big moustaches and bellies that I am scared that someone will
come up and ask me for my military ID card.
But, as everything in the new Iraq, the picture is totally blurred, and
no one in Falluja can figure out what the new arrangement actually
means. For some Fallujans, it meant that their people would get paid
again and they would be in charge of their own security without being
seen as collaborators. For the Americans it meant the new force would
work with them to enforce law and order in the city, helping to build a
But for other Fallujans, he who works with Americans is seen as the
enemy of God. Which means that we now have Falluja versus Falluja in the
biggest stand-off of the year: who really controls Falluja?
The city is now like a loose federation of Sunni mosques and
mujaheddin-run fiefdoms. These have become the only successfully
functioning "civil society" institutions, although the only form of
civil society they are interested in is a 1,400-year-old model.
So they raid houses where sinners are believed to be drinking alcohol,
and insist on forcing their own version of the hijab. If you have a
record shop in Falluja, it had better be selling the latest version of
Koranic chanting; Britney Spearscould get you flogged.
A bunch of Falluja kids, just finishing their exams, are hanging around
their school when two muj trucks surround them and pick up all the kids
who don't have a "decent" hair cut. They will be taken to get their
heads shaved. (Bear in mind that we are talking about Falluja, which is
already one of the most conservative towns in Iraq. There aren't too
many funky haircuts here to begin with.)
As I arrive at the main entrance to the city, two shaking Iraqi ICDC are
handing flyers to Fallujans driving into the city. The leaflets are
designed to advise how to file a complaint for compensation, and to
reassure them about what the Americans are up to: "The marines came here
originally to help the people of Falluja, and they will work together to
defeat the enemies of the Iraqi people."
I head towards one of the mosques where people are going to get aid and
charity donations. A guy in his 40s approaches me with the famous
welcoming smile of the Fallujans - a look of, "What the fuck are you
I tell him that I'm a journalist and would like to meet the Sheikh.
"How did you manage to get in? Didn't they stop you at the checkpoint?"
Thinking he is talking about the marines' checkpoint, I say, "No,
everything was fine."
"Did they see your camera?" I tell him I was hiding it.
"This Abu Tahrir, I don't know what kind of mujaheddin cell he is
running! I told him that every car should be thoroughly searched and all
journalists should be brought here!"
I am ushered inside where, surrounded by three muj fighters, the new
mayor of Falluja gives me his geopolitical analysis of the American plot
to control the world by occupying Falluja. "You know, we were all very
happy when the Americans came, we thought our country would be better
with their help, but Allah the Mighty wasn't pleased," he tells me. The
Americans started making mistakes, he explains, and now, "It's all
Allah's plot to stop the believers from dealing with infidel foreigners."
He opens his drawer and pulls out two sheets of paper: the demands and
the strategies of the resistance. One details an American-Shia plot to
kill the Sunni clerics, technocrats and former army officers. "Be
careful, oh brothers, because the Americans and their traitor allies,
the Kurds and the Shias, are planning to come after your leaders." The
other is a letter sent by the joint committee for the Iraqi resistance
to Lakhdar Ibrahimi, the UN envoy working to form a new government. Its
demands can be summarised as a request to hand Iraq to a bunch of wacko
Sunni army generals.
The meeting is interrupted many times, once when a small kid comes into
the room and everyone stands to shake his hand. "He is our best sniper
here. He has killed three Americans, he wants to call the Americans out
for a sniping competition."
One of the local muj cell leaders, Abu Tahrir ("father of liberation"),
is complaining how part of the muj corps has deserted and joined the
Americans. He is in his late 30s, overweight and a bit grim; a typical
former mukhabarat officer who mixes bits of the Koran with chunks of
nationalist and Ba'athist ranting.
Ten minutes later, another muj comes into the room complaining that
different muj groups haven't shown up to take their positions. The mayor
makes a few phone calls using his mobile phone - "We have cellphones
now, you know" - before returning to his thesis of where the American
invasion went wrong. "The Iraqi army has been staging coups and
counter-coups from 1958 to 1968; it was the army who managed to get
everything under control, instead of those stooges on the governing
council. The Americans should have counted on the real Iraqis" - and so
on, until the muj who brought me in comes back and says: "You have to
leave now. The commanders of the mujaheddin cells are going to have a
big meeting in Falluja in 15 minutes, and soon there will be muj
checkpoints everywhere. As we leave the mosque, he waves to a passing
police car and orders them to follow, so that we drive out of Falluja
escorted by both the muj and the police.
Sadr City in eastern Baghdad
Sadr City is an easy job for a journalist: all you have to do is cruise
around looking for trouble. It is a Soweto kind of slum: rubbish-filled
streets, ponds of sewage, and thousands of unemployed kids.
It is Saturday, and we are driving through the streets for the second
time in the day. It is late afternoon when we see a bunch of kids
directing the traffic away. By now we are able to sniff trouble from
miles away, but I tell my driver to head to that street. Makeshift
barricades are laid in the middle of the road, made of stones, tyres and
chunks of car metal. Someone's house has even been dismantled for the
"Don't go, there are Americans down the street," shouts one of the kids,
so we duck into a side road. The battlefield is an empty plot of land by
a mosque, surrounded by alleyways.
In one of them, a dozen teenagers, three or four of them wearing Arsenal
T-shirts and flip-flops, are emptying a car boot of a mortar tube and a
sackful of shells. I am allowed to stay and take pictures, but with the
usual proviso: "If we discover that you are working for the Americans,
we will kill you."
The target is a police station and three Humvees parked in front. Masked
like a western cowboy, the shooter, or the "expert" as they call him,
takes measure of the angle and shouts to another fighter: "Give me one!"
The other guy produces what looks like a rusted, 2-ft long shell. The
fighters here are also Mahdi, and the fighting in Sadr City often feels
like one big carnival. All the kids are by now doing their cheering
chant: "Ali wiyak, Ali!" "Ali with you, Ali!" If I were an American
soldier, I would be expecting a flying shell every time I hear kids
cheering in Sadr City. After all, this is the only fun they get,
shooting at the sitting ducks.
The expert tosses the shell into the barrel, and a big explosion
follows. "Right a bit!" shouts one of the kids at the end of the street.
"It fell on a house!"
The second one falls much too far to the left. "It fell on another
house, move to the right a little bit!"
The third one falls something like 10 metres away from us, but doesn't
explode. The fourth lands by the Americans, and detonates. "Ten dead, I
saw it with my own eyes!" shouts another kid. The fifth doesn't leave
the tube, and he has to up-end the tube and shake it.
In all, the firefight lasts for an hour, at which, after a few more
rounds and a few more civilian houses destroyed,the fighters jump into
their car and drive away.
Then the RPG session starts, kids aiming at the Americans and hitting
whatever target they fancy. As one prepares to fire his RPG, the rusted
rocket doesn't launch.
"Come, you can use mine," says a man who is standing by, watching.
Helpfully, he goes to his nearby home and returns with his RPG, as if he
were lending a neighbour his Hoover.
Then, "They are coming, they are coming!" and everyone starts to run;
the 50 or so kids who have gathered to watch the game, break into a
sprint. We jump into the first open door, where a man pulls us inside
and closes the door.
The house is nothing but two rooms and an open courtyard; home to two
families with countless tiny kids. "So they shoot and run, and soon the
Americans will come and start breaking into the houses and firing at
us," says the man.
Within a few minutes we hear a Humvee pull up by the door, and - boom!
boom! boom! - they start firing what sounds like a heavy machine gun.
Everyone jumps to the ground, and Ali is asked once again to show his
mercy upon us. "This has been our life for the past few weeks; we don't
know when we will be killed and who will kill us," says the father.
After a while the Humvees go, and we hear the sound of the kids in the
streets again. Everything back to normal.
That evening, after another session of shooting and counter-shooting, we
are sitting with the fighters by the office of Moqtada al-Sadr. We are
prepared for a long night waiting for American mortar shells. I think to
myself, here we go, another dozen houses gone.
A young muj extends his hand and says: "Do you want a beer?" I am
stunned, and what remains of my religious belief rapidly evaporates. But
the beer is good and I sit all night with the great religious fighters,
drinking beer and waiting for the shells that never come.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
Aniruddha 'Karim' Shankar
The Sarai Programme
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