The destruction of Fallujah raised many questions for Iraqis—questions voiced by three friends aged 24 to 30. The three men are traders who were trapped in Syria as the US laid siege to Fallujah. The government of Iyad Allawi is refusing to allow men of fighting age to re-enter the country. The three have joined the growing band of Iraqi refugees in Syria.
Wathiq is a Shia Muslim from Baghdad’s Sadr City district. He is a supporter of radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr:
“Iraqis are tired—tired after long years of war with Iran, then war over Kuwait, then the sanctions, then invasion and occupation.
“We see the solution in a national Iraqi government, and hopefully it will be an honest one—not one installed by the US. But we fear that a government under occupation will not be democratic or honest, and this is one reason why many people support the resistance.”
Wathiq says the government of interim Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi is full of the old faces: “All the figures of the old regime are back, the Mukhabarat (secret police), former Ba’athist generals and officials. This government is almost the same as the former regime.
“Everything that used to happen during the old regime happens now.”
Wathiq warns that followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is a more moderate figure than Al Sadr, are running out of patience: “Ali Sistani said that after the elections, if there is no solution, he will call for resistance.”
All three friends say the treatment handed out by the occupation forces has angered many Iraqis.
Wathiq, a lifelong opponent of the Ba’athist regime, explains how despite the horrors of the life under Saddam many ordinary Iraqis feel less secure than before the invasion:
“During Saddam’s rule we never had curfews—now there is a curfew between 10pm and 5am. Now in Iraq there are arrests, killing in the streets. The police pick up people from the street and hand them over to the US.
“The Americans are very provocative—they want to irritate people. For example, you have to keep your distance from US convoys or they shoot you. If a US vehicle breaks down they surround it with civilian cars, using the passengers as human shields.
“Once they stopped everyone just to remove a small picture of Al Sadr from a telephone pole. They even deployed snipers. They do this to provoke people. Is this little picture so harmful that so many people’s lives have to be put in danger?”
“When the Americans shoot at a car by mistake they don’t say sorry. They say it was full of fighters, even if there was a family travelling in the car,” he adds.
Salam is a Kurd living in Baghdad. He is a Shia and supports Ali Sistani. Salam says he is prepared to wait for the elections which are scheduled for January. If they are free and fair he says he will be satisfied. He insists that, even though he does not like the occupation, he does not support the resistance.
Salam once offered his services as an interpreter for the Americans. But then he and five friends were arrested in a sweep in the first days of the occupation. They were incarcerated at Baghdad airport and accused of being Fedayeen Saddam (Saddam’s partisans):
“They stopped us because we had arms in the car. They held us at Baghdad airport, then we were transferred to the Safwan prison camp near British-controlled Basra.
“We were held for one week at the airport, but the US soldiers did not beat us. No one touched us.There were about 900 of us in the camp.”
Salam was held for 35 days in the Safwan camp, and tells of the beatings meted out by British troops.
“You could always tell if someone was picked up by British soldiers, because they would have been beaten,” Salam says. “I saw how the people there were beaten.
“There were a lot of Syrians with us in the camp. They were young, I feared for them. They were with the resistance, but the soldiers treated them like common criminals and accused them of being thieves to stir up tensions.”
“There is a difference between the Americans and the British,” Wathiq added. “If the British arrest someone, he will be beaten.”
“But you want the truth, right?” Salam says. “The Americans didn’t beat us, but they did steal our money. They said they would hold on to our money for our own safety, and would give it back to us when we were released.
“But when they released us they told us to get our money from the Red Cross, and the Red Cross denied they had our money.”
Ahmed, a Sunni Muslim, is a memeber of the resistance. He describes himself as a Mujahadeen, a holy warrior.
Ahmed says US troops regularly steal from Iraqis when they raid their houses or stop them at checkpoints:
“When Americans search houses they steal whatever they can, even an ashtray if they like it. The rich people fear the Americans will steal their money and gold. Mobile phones get stolen from cars. Now we take everything with us when the soldiers search our cars.”
But, Ahmed says, there are some soldiers who are honest: “In one case I heard of, a US officer searched all his soldiers after they raided a house.
“He lined up his soldiers and searched them one by one. This is probably the only honest officer in the entire US army.”
But for Ahmed the real fear is not robbery but execution. He says there is a terror campaign in Mosul, and the Tigris River is full of bodies: “It is now ‘haram’, or forbidden, to eat fish from that river. You know why? Because of the numbers of the bodies the Americans dump in the river.
“I saw it with my eyes, I swear to god, I saw it with my eyes. If you ask any Iraqi now, they all know what Americans are doing with the bodies.”
Ahmed also accuses the US of planting bombs in cities to terrorise civilians. He claims they are the “dark forces” behind sectarian murders:
“I saw an incident where a car was stopped by Iraqi police. The men in the car were dressed in traditional clothes and had beards. The police found grenades in the car and demanded the men explain what they were doing. But they could not understand a word being spoken to them.
“So the policeman became angry and slapped one of the men. The man’s beard fell off! They turned out to be American spies. This is why many of us say that the Americans are behind many of the explosions in Baghdad.
“The soldiers would seal off a certain area for a whole day. They would take their time planting explosives, and later one of their spies would blow it up when there were civilians around.
“Seventy five percent of explosions targeting civilians are planted by the Americans. They killed [Shia religious leader] Mohammad Al Hakim in Najaf. They wanted to start a civil war.”
All three men agree that there are attempts to whip up sectarian and ethnic tensions between Sunni, Shia and Kurd. But Wathiq insists the dangers are overblown, and local religious leaders are quick to clamp down on sectarianism:
“There is cooperation between the Muslim leaders to prevent civil war. In Latifiyah, a Sunni town en route to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, Iraqi collaborators killed some Shias to create tension with the Sunnis. But the incidents were dealt with immediately by the mosques to prevent any escalation.”
Ahmed joined the resistance during the April uprising. He says the fighters in the northern city of Mosul are a mix of Islamic and secular nationalist groups. Mosul, Iraq’s third city, is divided between Arabs and Kurds, and has strong left wing traditions:
“Let’s not mix the terms. The word ‘resistance’ has a national meaning. The ‘jihad’ is for Allah, and for me I’m doing it for Allah. But many resistance fighters are not strict Muslims, and do not pray.
“But they are fighting the occupation, and they face death doing that. If you go on a mission you only have a one in four chance of coming home. The secular resistance and Islamic resistance cooperate because our objective is the same—we have the same goal.”
Ahmed says that the destruction of Fallujah has left a deep impact on the fighters in Mosul. Fear of massive aerial bombardment has led to a change in strategy:
“If Mosul became like Fallujah, and all the people start fighting, the Americans will call in the air force and destroy the city. Many of us feel that guerrilla attacks are better than a city-wide insurrection.”
Wathiq feels that the resistance is not strong enough to confront the Americans. He says the standoff in Najaf last September exposed the lack of training of Al Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army.
But ominously for the US and the British, he says there are preparations for a new uprising:
“People in the south are doing some research on the American weaponry, the way the US army works, and developing their capabilities. We are preparing for ‘zero hour’. We were infiltrated during the battle for Najaf. We will be better prepared next time.”
Salam says, “The majority of Iraq are Shia Muslims, and the majority follow Ali Sistani.
“We are a silent majority, but we are both against the occupation and against the resistance, for now.”
But he adds that many of Ali Sistani’s followers have been given permission to take up arms while others collect money.
He, like many Iraqis from the long-oppressed communities, is waiting for the elections: “I know for sure the Americans will leave [after the elections].”
But he warns, “We Iraqis can kick anyone out. The Americans know that, and they know they must leave. We are patient, but in the end we will not accept the occupation.”
The names of the three Iraqis have been changed. The interviews took place in Syria.