Turned against America'
By Jason Burke
13 September, 2004
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 US Embassy
or at the Iraqi Prime Minister's office. Then Abu Mujahed will shower,
change and, by 10am, 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
'sheikh' most of them have never met.
How it is funded
by Iraqis in Europe, including the UK, and from wealthy sympathizers
in Saudi Arabia.
How it has rejected
any alliance with al-Qaeda affiliated 'foreign fighters' and Shia militia.
How it receives
intelligence from 'friends' within the coalition forces.
How it runs a counter-intelligence
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
in Iraq talk of three main types of insurgent. There is the Mahdi Army
of Shia Muslims who follow the radical cleric Moqtada 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-Qaeda' - non-Iraqi militants who have come to Iraq
to wage jihad. And finally the 'former regime loyalists', who are said
to want the return of Saddam Hussein or, if that is impossible, his
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 US would come here and
our lives would be changed through 180 degrees.'
He spoke of how
his faith in the US 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 US was not here to help us but to destroy us,'
Abu Mujahed, whose
real name is not known by The Observer, said: '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 neighbourhood 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, and 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.'
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 sheikh who co-ordinates some of the various groups but I do not
know who he is.'
To start with, the
group lacked armaments and know-how. '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 last year - was an attempted ambush of three US
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
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 the 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 was 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 UK has
recently sent an Opel pick-up. 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) in markets in Sadr City, the northern Shia Muslim-dominated
area of Baghdad - 10 times the immediate post-war 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 have 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.
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-Qaeda.
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
Last week US 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 the
interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, as 'the Americans' Barbie doll'
but then says 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 ID (£100) 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 ID.'
'The US or the UK
are not my enemy. I know that any individual US or UK 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.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004