He sat at a plain white table in a deserted building not far from Haifa Street, a stronghold of militancy in the heart of the Iraqi capital. Before him was a tray bearing cups of sweet dark tea and a plate of bananas, and as American helicopter gunships carved circles in the sky above, he described how he had become the commander of a hard-line Islamic cell in the Iraqi insurgency.
The man, in his mid-30s with a trimmed dark beard, studious black-rimmed spectacles and a red-and-white kaffiyeh thrown loosely over his shoulders, gave his name only as Abu Mojahed. Before the war he had been a laborer in Baghdad and was jailed four times under Saddam Hussein's regime because of his adherence to the Salafi creed of Sunni Islam, a strict and conservative belief. He would gather with friends for secret Salafi classes and discussions.
He did not fight when America invaded last year, but did not welcome the war either. "I didn't fight. I stayed at home. If you fight for Saddam and he wins, you are not winning. If America wins, you are not winning," he said. "They freed us from evil but they brought more evil to the country." As the weeks passed, the clerics in the mosques instructed him and his friends to take up arms. "We fight the Americans because they are nonbelievers and they are coming to fight Islam, calling us terrorists," he said.
The insurgents' story is one rarely told, a brief insight into the lives of thousands of Iraqi men who have spent the past 18 months fighting a costly guerrilla war against the most powerful army in the world. Their motivations vary: Some are undoubtedly from Saddam's military and intelligence apparatus, others fight to defend tribal or nationalistic honor, but alongside them a much more extreme Islamic militancy has emerged. The U.S. military has in the past dismissed the fighters as "anti-Iraqi forces" and "terrorists." Several U.S. commanders announced that the back of the insurgency had been broken by the assault on Fallujah.
However, Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy chief of the U.S. Central Command, told Reuters Wednesday that the insurgency "is becoming more effective. They may use doorbells today to blow things up. They may use remote controls from toys to morrow. And as we adapt, they adapt." The Iraqi fighters, who describe themselves as the "mujahedin," the holy warriors, or for the more secular, the "muqawama," the resistance, insist there is more fighting still to come.
In the past year Haifa Street, in a place full of narrow alleyways in a poor Sunni area on the banks of the Tigris River, has become a focal point of the resistance -- even though it is near the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies and the Iraqi interim government.
Insurgents have laid dozens of bombs beneath the road surface and still appear to be largely in control of the area. Three groups are understood to operate there: Tawhid and Jihad, the group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; the Islamic Army, another extreme group also responsible for kidnappings and beheadings; and a third group of fighters whose name is unclear. Abu Mojahed said he spoke for all three groups, whom he called the "Haifa mujahedin."
He said his targets were the U.S. military and "those supporting them" and that his men had attacked helicopters, tanks and individual soldiers, although he would not describe specific incidents. Unlike other, more secular elements in the insurgency, the Salafis have their own agenda for the future of their country, shaped in a language of anger, revenge and rigid Islamic conservatism.
"We fight for our land, against those who are fighting Islam, for our country and for our women," he said. "Our goal is to fight whoever fights us and not just the Americans. And we want this country ruled by the Tawhid and Sunna," he said. The two words are fundamentals for the Salafis: Tawhid meaning monotheism and Sunna the ways of the prophet Mohammed. "If that doesn't happen, that means all of us die because we fight until the last breath," he said.
In a second interview, conducted several miles away, a young fighter from a different group spoke of his motivation. He said he fought for his religion. He used a more secular Arabic vocabulary and, typical of many in the insurgency, appeared to have no clear agenda for his country's future. He gave his name as Abu Abdul Rahman, and sat with a red-and-white kaffiyeh wrapped so uncomfortably tight around his face that his dark brown eyes were only occasionally visible. "Before the war I was an ordinary person living my life and minding my own business," he said. "After the Americans came and invaded my country there was no war to go to except jihad."
Abu Rahman, 25, had been a student, working occasionally. He said he had not supported Saddam, but had chosen not to fight the regime. "You could say we were hypnotized by it," he said. Like others, he was grateful that the war brought the dictator's fall, but was angered by the American occupation that followed. "Thanks to the Americans for getting rid of Saddam, but no thanks for still staying in Iraq," he said.
"The idea of jihad came step by step as I watched what the Americans were doing to our country," he said. "In the beginning we were only cousins and friends, and later other people came to join us, people who were presented to us by the sheiks."
He appeared undeterred by the strength of the U.S. military arsenal and spoke keenly of martyrdom. "My group and I, we always race to death, so we may die and go to heaven. Our goal is to get the invaders out of our country, and from all the Arab countries, and I hope that after we get them out we will have a couple of moments of peace in our life."
He fought in Fallujah in April, during the first attempt by the U.S. Marines to take control of the city. "There are many people who have died in my group," he said. "But only one of them really broke my heart. He was a cousin of mine, but it was written for him to be in heaven." The emir, or commander, of their group was also killed in Fallujah in April. "He was a friend from childhood," Abu Rahman said.
Because of the intense fighting, it took five days to retrieve the emir's body. "He was always telling us to pray for him to die that day. He would fight with us, not like those leaders who stay in the back. We made a celebration like a wedding party when he died."
Abu Rahman said that although he belonged to a tribe, his motivation was religious, not tribal. He also said some Iraqi police and soldiers should not be touched, and were "serving for the good of their country." Foreign contractors should not be targeted either, he said.
In the end, he said, it was the lack of reconstruction and the continued occupation that had left people so embittered. "We don't want them, thanks. We can rebuild our own country; we have a long and ancient history. All we are asking is for them to pull out."