“Defending their country”

Two Britons born in Iraq explain their reasons for joining the insurgents loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

Topics:

The two young men sitting cross-legged in a small room off the courtyard of the Imam Ali shrine looked like any of the fighters around them.

Their beards were short and neat, their feet bare and their dress the simple dishdasha, the Arab robe. They were deferential to their militia commander and spoke idealistically of defeating the military might of America in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf.

But both were from London, the first Britons known to have joined the Mahdi army, one of the most prominent fighting groups in the Islamic insurgency that has gripped Iraq in the year since the invasion.

Though the two men were born in Iraq — one in Najaf, the other in Baghdad — their families took them to England as children. They went to school and college in the capital, picked up strong London accents and British passports, and finally returned to the country of their birth for the first time on Monday.

Their sole aim: to fight a “jihad” with a ragtag Shiite militia loyal to the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi army and its allies have staged violent uprisings across southern Iraq and are now battling the U.S. and British armies and the Baghdad government.

Neither would give his name, but the elder, a confident 23-year-old, used the nom de guerre Abu Haqid (father of fury). He said he had studied English and worked in a supermarket. The younger, quieter man — his 21-year-old nephew — called himself Abu Turab (father of dust, the connotation of death). He had been studying to be a computer teacher.

The pair had traveled secretly into Iraq in the past few days, via a “not legit” route, according to Abu Haqid.

They had talked to others in London about coming out to fight. “Some said they would wait and see what happens to us,” he said. “We told them ‘our brothers are fighting down there, they are not eating well, they are not sleeping well, we have to be in the same place as them, the same position as them.’”

They had the support of their families, Abu Haqid added: “It is our religion and our families can’t stop this thing. We all have a belief, me and my family, when it comes to jihad. We asked our families and they said yes. It is good to protect your country and be there with your brothers.”

For the first two days the pair were to be trained to use the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles that most carry, as well as BKC machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.



“They are training us how to use the weapons and how to move quickly when we move,” said Abu Turab. “We are going to complete our training and soon we will start fighting.”

On their first night they were handed a BKC machine gun and sent out into the Valley of Peace, the vast, ancient graveyard to the north of the old city of Najaf that has become the frontline of the latest six-day uprising.

“They taught us how to use the gun — it’s simple at the end of the day. I didn’t see any Americans. They were very far away,” said Abu Haqid. “It was good fun, actually. It was dangerous but we have our belief.”

Sadr’s militiamen are mainly fighting from the alleyways of the old city, using old weapons and no body armor. They face a force of thousands of U.S. Marines, backed up by tanks, armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters.

Asked where they slept at night, Abu Haqid said: “We believe Najaf is a holy city, so wherever you are in it you will just chill out and sleep.”

“There is no salary,” said Abu Turab. “The food is simple, no barbecues or anything. Just a simple sandwich of bread and nothing else. But we believe that if you see your brothers  and someone is killing them and it is not fair, then you have to stand with them and support them, in Palestine or any place.”

The pair said they wanted to come to Iraq to fight as soon as the U.S. invaded last year. “They were wrong to come to our country. They said they came for chemical weapons and they didn’t get permission from the U.N., so they attacked Iraq for no reason,” said Abu Turab.

“It’s pride, my friend. It is pride,” said the other. “If someone wants to step on your head, I don’t know if it would be accepted in Europe or England.”

They planned their trip for months and when Sadr emerged as a powerful leader after organizing a series of uprisings in April, they decided to volunteer to join his force. “Bush said ‘you are either with us or against us,’” Abu Haqid added. “We had to decide either to be with him or against him, and we are against him definitely.”

Both were at pains to point out their disapproval of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network and insisted their presence in Sadr’s militia did not amount to terrorism, because they were fighting against uniformed soldiers.

“Bin Laden and his group are totally against our belief, killing innocent civilians,” said Abu Haqid. “Killing innocent people we cannot do. That is terrorism; this is defending your country.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>