Portrait of an Iraqi rebel

He is a handball player. He hated life under Saddam. But now, as a foot soldier in an enigmatic resistance movement, he wants the U.S. out of Iraq.

Published August 16, 2003 11:09PM (EDT)

One night late last June, a muscular young Iraqi dressed in a blue tracksuit lugged an RPG-7 rocket launcher through a field near his birthplace of Fallujah. From his shoulder hung a leather bag that he had tailored himself to carry two extra grenades. He and his five comrades-in-arms reached the long, straight country road where an American convoy was expected to pass later that night. They spread out, prepared their ambush and settled into a long wait.

"I was anxious, I was worried about the outcome," recalls Walid (not his real name) almost two months later in the safety of a cafeteria in a Baghdad hotel. Though he'd done two years of service in Saddam Hussein's army, this was to be his first time in combat and he felt ill prepared. Only days before had he received training in the use of the rocket-propelled grenade launcher, after having joined what he calls a "resistance group" in the area around Fallujah. But he insists he was unafraid: "If I die for my cause," he says, "that's good."

More than any other city in Iraq, Fallujah has become a byword for resistance to the U.S. presence in the country. The city lies close to the main road connecting the capital of Baghdad to Jordan. It is where the first incidents took place, shortly after President Bush on May 1 declared an end to combat. Since then, 59 American soldiers across the country have died in attacks. Not far from Fallujah, Ramadi has become the bane of many a traveler. That is where heavily armed gangs stop whole convoys of foreigners and relieve them of their money and valuables.

Welcome to the so-called Sunni triangle, the area north and west of the capital where Saddam Hussein and his Baath party were most firmly entrenched. Running roughly from Baghdad on the southern tip to Ramadi in the west and then north to the deposed dictator's hometown of Tikrit, this is the region where most attacks on U.S. soldiers have taken place. Southern Iraq, where the majority Shiite population lives and which is partly controlled by British troops, has been quiet by comparison, although the past week has seen a rise in tensions there as well.

Anger at power outages and fuel shortages exploded into riots in the southern port city of Basra and one Iraqi was killed when troops opened fire. On Thursday, a British soldier was killed in an explosion that may have been a revenge attack. But the security problems facing the south, including in the U.S.-controlled holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, pale in comparison with the steady, seemingly coordinated and often deadly attacks on U.S. troops in the center of the country. Many of the attacks have been carried out by small bands of guerrilla fighters carrying RPGs; in other cases, explosive devices have been placed on the roads where U.S. convoys pass.

Walid is a tough-looking, compact little man with a stubble beard and the universally short-cropped hair of young Iraqis. He has thick calluses on his hands from playing handball and he says that he used to stub out cigarettes on them. But he is not all bravura, and in many ways he does not seem to conform to the picture that has emerged of the typical Iraqi resistance fighter. He is no friend of Saddam or the Baath regime, he is not a Muslim fundamentalist and as a student of English Literature at Baghdad University, he is not anti-Western.

In fact, throughout the interview, Walid takes great pains to emphasize that he is tolerant, a man of the world. "You see," he tells a reporter, "I drink cola with you, even though my group has issued a call to boycott all American products." His tale, however, is one of gradually increasing opposition to the presence of U.S. soldiers in the countryside and finally, of a decision to join the resistance. The account cannot be independently verified, but a fellow student from Baghdad University confirms that Walid told him about the same events at the time when they happened over the past few months.

The administration of U.S. President George Bush and the Coalition Provisional Authority, which oversees Iraq, have emphasized over the past few months that the attacks have mainly been the work of elements that are loyal to Saddam's fallen regime, combined with some Islamic fundamentalists. It is also claimed that increasingly "foreign fighters" are involved, people who have links to outside terror organizations, particularly al-Qaida. Walid, however, did not see "any foreign influence" in his group. From his account, it emerges that many former army officers are involved in the resistance and that the leadership may well have designs that the more lowly members are barely aware of. Perhaps they are seeking the restoration of Saddam's regime. Or, on the contrary, they may be seeking an Islamic state. Perhaps they want to extend the influence of the Saudis, or perhaps they are simply anti-American. That is, for now, unclear. The lower ranks seem to have been mainly inspired, like Walid, by a mixture of disappointment over the "broken promises" of the U.S.-led coalition to improve life and bring democracy, by the sheer presence of U.S. soldiers near their homes and by the behavior and attitudes of some of the soldiers -- in short, by the reality of occupation.

At first, Walid positively welcomed the demise of the old regime. Its minions had frustrated his dream of playing handball at the highest level when they demanded a bribe of 3 million Iraqi dinar -- at the time, $1,500 -- in order to try out for the national team. Sports in Iraq were the fief of Saddam Hussein's son Uday and his allies. Walid talks disgustedly about corruption and "thieves" in the Iraqi sports culture. But his dissatisfaction with the Baath party goes back further. The army was as corrupt as the sport clubs and bribes were needed for everything, from obtaining a weekend leave to avoiding harassment by the officers. "It was a jungle," recalls Walid. "The officers were lurking in it like lions."

He cannot imagine that many people will want the old government back. "Most people didn't respect the regime and don't want it to come back," says Walid. That is what makes him think that the people who write graffiti on the walls of Baghdad and Fallujah proclaiming that "there will be no peace without Saddam," are "pushed by foreign influences." At the same time, he thinks that the leaders of his resistance group are not Baathists or supporters of Saddam Hussein, and he does not think any foreigners are involved. But he is not entirely sure -- he has never met leaders in the higher echelons of his organization. His friends in the resistance have told him they are "good people." Clearly, many of the officers he so despised in the army are now his buddies in the resistance.

To explain his transformation from opposing the government to opposing the Americans, Walid initially falls back on the general discontent that many residents of the Sunni triangle seem to feel. He says people are provoked by the presence of the U.S. troops in the countryside, in the tribal areas. "They come by with their weapons, in their military uniforms and then there is the bad treatment," says Walid. "They mistreat everybody equally, men and women. We have a tradition that women should not be mistreated, but they grab and touch them."

The latter complaint is widely heard in Iraq; it is part of a long litany of insults that seem to be the staple of any conversation in mosques, cafes and markets. It's likely that, under Saddam, the same offensive treatment was applied to the Shiites, Kurds and opposition Sunnis. Now, with Saddam fallen, the presence of the occupier grates particularly on the Sunnis, who used to be the rulers of the country. Walid demands "respect for the Iraqi people." He says that his group has declared that the people should "resist anyone who insults Arab tradition and does things we don't want to happen." The raids that the U.S. soldiers carry out -- in response to attacks, or in search of weapons or members or the old regime -- often enrage people, particularly when women are being frisked by men, or arrested and kept in prison.

The Sunni areas have born the brunt of these searches and raids, partly because they are thought to harbor members of the old regime and because of the attacks. Walid shows himself atypical as well on the issue of Sunni resentment. He says he makes no distinction between Sunni and Shiite and that he respects the Governing Council that was appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority last month as a first step toward a fully fledged Iraqi government. Many Sunnis on the streets of Baghdad as well as in the countryside oppose the council, which is dominated by Shiites.

The new council throws into stark political relief the momentous change that has happened in Iraq. For centuries the culture was dominated by Sunnis from the center of the country; they were dominant under the Ottoman Turks, under the Hashemite monarchs and under all the regimes that came after. Now this has been changed by the U.S. and British occupiers, who have picked the Iraqi representatives according to what they approximate is the makeup of population. Of the Governing Council's 25 members, more than half (13) are counted as Shiite and only five are outright Arab Sunni. This has not gone down well.

"It is asking for trouble," says Mudar Shawkat, one of the leaders of the broad-based Iraqi National Congress, whose chairman Ahmed Chalabi, nominally a Shiite, sits on the Governing Council. Shawkat, himself a Sunni, warns that it is unacceptable to suddenly change a balance that has existed for such a long time. "Arab Sunnis have been involved in Iraq's establishment for hundreds of years," says Shawkat. "They will never accept that somebody puts them aside." Shawkat and many other Sunnis and some Shiites say the council was handpicked along sectarian lines and that this will seriously backfire. Of course the question remains whether any system of choosing the council members that still leaves a Shiite majority can be accepted by the Sunnis.

Walid, though, seems to have much more personal reasons for his resentment of the American soldiers than mere politics. He makes a distinction between the coalition and the army. "The coalition says it came to get rid of the regime and fix some bad things here," says Walid. The army, on the other hand "did some worthless things." He is particularly incensed by the disdainful attitude he perceives among many of the soldiers.

He picked up that impression during a short stint as a translator at an Army base not far from Fallujah, and it may have turned him decisively against the occupiers. As an undergraduate student of English literature, he managed to get a job there not too long after the base was established. His language skills are weak, though; he insisted on doing this interview entirely in Arabic. Even so, he insists that it was his own choice to quit after three days, because he disliked working there and because the U.S. Army wanted to take him on patrols. Because of the attacks, Walid explains, "that would have put me in a dangerous position."

At least part of his anger may rest on a small but profound misunderstanding. Walid says that the soldiers badmouthed the Iraqis and regarded them all as terrorists. "The American soldiers had a lot of hatred towards the Iraq people," he recalls. "They said we are nonbelievers, savages, we have no right to live." When asked, though, to repeat verbatim some of the insults, Walid remembers one sergeant who said, according to him: "I don't love the Iraqi people, they are unbelievable people, they can go to hell."

The mix-up between unbeliever and unbelievable, if that is what happened, would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic. His skill with English is limited; it would be no surprise if he misunderstood. But in a few words, that encapsulates the gap between the two sides who understand each other's culture sometimes even less than each other's language.

Despite the language problems, Walid certainly sounds as if he picked up a lot of bad vibes from the servicemen. When he decided to leave his job as a translator, he brought along a present to his new friends in the resistance: the identities of some of the Iraqi informers, "traitors," whom he had seen at the base. "I don't know what happened to them," he says, "maybe they were put on trial."

The tale of his short career as a fighter seems to be simple and again, from his point of view, slightly tragic. Joining the resistance was easy enough: He made clear through his friends that he was available. In June, shortly before the attack he carried out, Walid was called up for training with the group. One of his contacts came by and told him to show up. "There were a variety of weapons," he recalls. Apart from the RPGs there were mortars and even antiaircraft missiles. Because of his own experience with the martial arts he conducted some training sessions in unarmed combat. The other instructors were ex-army officers, Walid says, and they were also the ones who had provided most of the weaponry that they had hidden after the war. He himself had to be made familiar with the weapons, as he had never held an RPG before. That day he fired two of the grenades "in an open area" and he was considered ready for the big day.

On the day of the attack he was warned in the evening, again by a friend, that his presence was needed. Most of the others received their instructions via a Thuraya satellite phone. The location of the ambush and the plan for the attack were provided from above. The group of six men, of whom he only knew two, carried three RPG's and two mortars with them, but no small arms. He thinks that one of the attackers carried a telephone by which he stayed in touch with his superiors, but he is not sure because after reaching the road, the group spread out and the members didn't communicate with each other.

Walid says that the ambush in which he participated was set up because the group had received information that an American unit would come into the area to search for members of the old regime. It was not the first time -- the soldiers had "searched the places of the people before and arrested some of them," he explains, "and that is why we decided to target this unit."

Walid says he felt apprehensive and he was worried that he would not hit his designated target: the last vehicle in the convoy. The goal was to cut off retreat for the unit. The plan called for him to fire the first shot, a rocket-propelled grenade; then one of his comrades would fire at the first vehicle; then the others would use RPGs and mortars to pick off the rest of the convoy. But Walid's apprehension was well-founded. When the convoy of five Humvees and three or four Bradley fighting vehicles finally entered the trap, the first shot he ever fired in combat exploded with a lot of noise against some rocks and the Americans started firing immediately in the direction of the group.

That was the end of the whole operation. "After I missed, we had to withdraw," says Walid. The men scrambled for their lives. Walid saw two of his comrades being hit by fire from the Bradleys. He hasn't seen them since, but he says he heard that everybody got away. Later a helicopter also joined the hunt for the fighters, but by that time they had escaped and had melted into the local population.

Since the botched attack, almost two months ago now, Walid hasn't been called upon again to participate. "I would do it again if I had to," he says. Apparently, though, the group has called a cease-fire for now. "Too many of the operations went wrong, like ours, and it had negative consequences for the local people, sometimes there were reprisals." With the appointment of the Governing Council, he says, the political situation has changed; the groups wants to give it some time and see where that will lead. In the meantime, he admits, "they are looking forward to making the group bigger and stronger."

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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Iraq Islam Middle East Religion