If Iraqis had full bellies, maybe they wouldn't resist

A Sunni insurgent who welcomed the Americans at first discusses the complicated motives of those fighting the U.S. occupation.

Published September 13, 2004 2:50PM (EDT)

Early one morning this week, when the police have yet to set up too many checkpoints, Abu Mujahed will strap a mortar underneath a car, drive to a friend's in central Baghdad and bury the weapon in his garden. In the evening he will return with the rest of his group, sleep for a few hours and then take the weapon from its hiding place. He will calculate the range using the American military's own maps and satellite pictures -- bought in a bazaar -- and fire a few rounds at a military base or the U.S. Embassy or at the Iraqi prime minister's office. Then Abu Mujahed will shower, change and, by 10 a.m., be at his desk in one of the major ministries.

Last week he sat in a Baghdad hotel speaking to the Observer. A chubby man in his thirties with a shaven head, a brown sports shirt, slacks and a belt with a cheap fake-branded buckle, he gave a chilling account of his life fighting "the occupation." He talked for more than three hours and revealed:

  • How his resistance group, comprising self-taught Sunni Muslim Iraqis, is almost completely independent, choosing targets and timings themselves, but occasionally receiving broad strategic directions from a religious "sheik" most of them have never met.

  • How it is funded by Iraqis in Europe, including the U.K., and from wealthy sympathizers in Saudi Arabia.

  • How it has rejected any alliance with al-Qaida affiliated "foreign fighters" and Shiite militia.

  • How it receives intelligence from "friends" within the coalition forces.

  • How it runs a counterintelligence operation that has resulted in the execution of two suspected spies in recent weeks.

  • How it is learning increasingly sophisticated techniques and plans to detonate big bombs in Baghdad soon.

    He also spoke about the difficulties of continuing security operations against them and admitted that many Iraqis do not support their actions. Much of Abu Mujahed's account is corroborated by various independent sources.

    Intelligence experts in Iraq talk of three main types of insurgent. There is the Mahdi Army of Shiite Muslims who follow radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and have led recent resistance to coalition forces in northern Baghdad, the central shrine city of Najaf and Basra, the southern port under British control. There is also "al-Qaida" -- non-Iraqi militants who have come to Iraq to wage jihad. And finally there are the "former regime loyalists," who are said to want the return of Saddam Hussein or, if that is impossible, his Baath party.

    Abu Mujahed, worryingly for the analysts, fits into none of these easy categories. For a start, he was pro-American before the invasion. "The only way to breathe under the old regime was to watch American films and listen to their music," he said. He had been a Bon Jovi fan.

    "It gave me a glimpse of a better life. When I heard that the Americans were coming to liberate Iraq,I was very happy. I felt that I would be able to live well, travel and have freedom. I wanted to do more sport, get new appliances and a new car and develop my life. I thought the U.S. would come here and our lives would be changed 180 degrees."

    He spoke of how his faith in the U.S. was shaken when, via a friend's illicitly imported satellite TV system, he saw "barbaric, savage" pictures of civilian casualties of the fighting and bombing. The next blow came in the conflict's immediate aftermath, as looters ran unchecked through Baghdad. "When I saw the American soldiers watching and doing nothing as people took everything, I began to suspect the U.S. was not here to help us but to destroy us," he said. Abu Mujahed, whose real name is not known by the Observer, added: "I thought it might be just the chaos of war, but it got worse, not better."

    He was not alone and swiftly found that many in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad shared his anger and disappointment. The time had come: "We realized we had to act."

    Nothing had been planned in advance. There has been speculation, especially among American officials, that Saddam's henchmen had planned a "guerrilla war" if defeated. But Abu Mujahed, who described himself as "a Muslim but not religious," and the others in his group were not working to any plan. Everything they did was improvised. And each of his seven-man group had a different motive: "One man was fighting for his nation, another for a principle, another for his faith."

    Significantly, his group contains several former soldiers, angry at the controversial demobilization of the Iraqi military by the coalition last year. Others, like Abu Mujahed, have salaried government jobs. The cell is not part of any broader organization and does not have a name, he said. "We are just local people ... There is a sheik who coordinates some of the various groups, but I do not know who he is."

    To start with, the group lacked armaments and knowhow. "We made some careful inquiries. Some people gave us weapons; others sold us stuff they had looted," he said. The group also sought out experts, often former military officers, who gave impromptu tutorials in bomb making and communications .

    The group's first operation -- in June 2003 -- was an attempted ambush of three U.S. soldiers in Adhamiya. It was a fiasco. "We were so confused and scared we opened fire at random," Abu Mujahed said. "They took cover and we ran away."

    Their next try was more successful. The lead vehicle of an American military convoy ran over an anti-tank mine the group had laid in a road. "We think we killed the driver," he said. "We found the mine in a house that had been used by the military during the war. The Americans were not expecting that sort of device."

    Over the next months the group varied its tactics. "One day we try and snipe them, the next we use an IED [improvised explosive device], the next a mine. We never get any orders from anybody. We are just told: 'Today you should do something,' but it is up to us to decide what and when."

    Black soldiers are a particular target. "To have Negroes occupying us is a particular humiliation," Abu Mujahed said, echoing the profound racism prevalent in much of the Middle East. "Sometimes we aborted a mission because there were no Negroes."

    In contrast to many militants, who have killed hundreds of Iraqis in the last year, Abu Mujahed said his group is careful not to kill locals. "We are now planning to use bigger bombs in central Baghdad. But it is hard because there are so many civilians." Support for the militants is far from universal. They are not attracting new recruits and finances are tight, he admitted.

    "We used to be able to use banks and bank transfers. Now it is harder," Abu Mujahed said. "Often sympathizers buy cars in Saudi Arabia or Jordan and we get them driven to Baghdad or Basra and we sell them. A supporter in the U.K. has recently sent an Opel pickup. But most of our money comes from local people who support what we do but can't fight themselves."

    Tactics depend on resources. The price of rocket-propelled grenades has gone up recently as supplies dried up during August's heavy fighting between Americans and the Mahdi Army in Najaf. The missiles now cost 25,000 Iraqi dinars (around 10 pounds) in markets in Sadr City, the northern Shiite Muslim-dominated area of Baghdad -- 10 times the immediate postwar price. The group is restricted to one attack every few days.

    There are also spies. He boasted of information from "friends within the coalition" and said that his group has executed two suspected informers within Adhamiya. One was killed less than three weeks ago, after being under surveillance for a month. "He had a wife and child but I did not feel bad. He was a fox. He was made to kneel and shot in the head." Other suspected spies have been threatened and fled Baghdad.

    Western intelligence analysts worry that various resistance elements might combine. But Abu Mujahed dismissed the Mahdi Army as "thugs and traitors who ... welcomed the Americans to Iraq with flowers and then went looting," and said that relations with Islamic militants coming from overseas are worse.

    "Some have no allegiance to any group; others have so much money they must come from al-Qaida. It is impossible to work with them. They are bloody people, far too irrational. They do not care if they kill innocent Iraqi people. They are terrorists."

    Last week U.S. military casualties in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark, most killed since the end of the war by the actions of men like Abu Mujahed. The former engineering student said he does not know how many his group has killed: "It is impossible to say what has been hit. I could boast of killing maybe 25, but to be honest we don't know," he said. "Maybe only five or six."

    "I know the soldiers have no choice about coming here, and all have a family and friends," he added. His justification for the struggle was an inconsistent mix of political and economic grievances and wounded pride: "We are under occupation. They bomb the mosques; they kill a huge number of people. There is no greater shame than to see your country being occupied."

    He dismissed Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, as "the Americans' Barbie doll," but then said that if everyone had "full bellies" no one would fight.

    "Iraqis' top priority is to provide a good living for their families. I take home less than 250,000 dinars (100 pounds) a month and I have four children. I have to pay the rent, doctor's bills; my wife needs something; my house needs something. And a kilo of chicken costs 2,500 dinars."

    "The U.S. and the U.K. are not my enemy. I know that any individual U.S. or U.K. citizen is very good, but we will keep fighting the occupying forces. We have no choice."

    And with that he left. The Observer was told not to contact him again.

  • By Jason Burke

    Jason Burke has covered the war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden from day one. He writes for the Observer, a British newspaper.

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