By Nir Rosen
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Resistance: Meet the People of Fallujah

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
Earlier this year Nir Rosen of Asia Times visited the resistance-held city of Fallujah. This is an edited version of his travelogue, which can be read in full at
Issue 289

Part One: Losing It

I took a taxi from Amman to Baghdad. After passing through Jordanian customs and approaching the Iraqi border post, my driver warned me to remain in the car. The Iraqi resistance had people working for it at the border post, he said, and if they saw my US passport they would contact their friends on the road ahead. They would welcome us with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. I pushed the seat back, as he said, and closed my eyes. As we drove past the charred hulks of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) whose drivers had been less savvy than mine, and whose passengers had been less lucky than me, I wondered who else was infiltrating Iraq with the same ease I did.

Fallujah had always been a little different from the rest of Iraq. An American non-governmental organisation project manager told me with bewilderment of his meeting with a women’s group from the town who shocked him by being more radical than the men. ‘We must be willing to sacrifice our sons to end the occupation,’ they told him.

Combining rigid religious conservatism, strong tribal traditions and a fierce loyalty to Saddam Hussein, Fallujah battled five different US commanders who were brought in to tame the wild western province of the country. According to Professor Amazia Baram, an Iraq expert from the University of Haifa and the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, Saddam found greater loyalty in the 300,000-strong city of Fallujah than he did even in his home town of Tikrit. Situated on a strategic point bridging the Euphrates river in the desert, Fallujah is the centre of a fertile region on the outskirts of the desert leading to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Its location makes it a smuggling centre. After the latest war, Fallujah did not suffer from the same looting seen in other parts of the country, as there was less reason to be hostile to the former regime and its institutions. Saddam had given Fallujah virtual autonomy. The religious and tribal leaders appointed their own civil management council even before US troops arrived. Local imams urged the public to respect law and order. Trouble with Americans started soon after they arrived, however.

A protest on 29 March – coinciding with Saddam Hussein birthday – against the 82nd Airborne Division’s occupation of a school turned bloody when US soldiers killed 17 protesters and killed three more in a follow-up protest two days later. On 31 March four US contractors were killed and mutilated. The slayings of the US mercenaries provoked a Stalingrad-like response by the Americans called Operation Vigilant Resolve. After a month-long siege of Fallujah, during which US forces battered the city in pursuit of about 2,000 armed fighters, the US received an offer from a coalition of former generals, tribal leaders and religious leaders. The Americans described it as a success, but Fallujans were clear that they had liberated their city. The arrangement struck with the Americans was simple – leave us alone or we will fight you.

On the main street of Fallujah, once called Habbaniya Street but renamed Sheikh Ahmad Yassin Street in honour of the Hamas leader killed by the Israelis, labourers with scarves protecting their faces from the dust gather to be picked up for day jobs. It was these angry, unemployed young men, armed with their shovels and pipes, who dismembered the four contractors after the mujahideen had ambushed their vehicles. Young boys sell bananas and Kleenex boxes. The boys serve as an early-warning system for the city, notifying the fighters if they spot foreigners.

The boys gathered around me, and the labourers removed their keffiyehs from their faces to talk. They witnessed the attack on the contractors, they said, describing how the two cars had stopped at a red light and the mujahideen opened fire on them from other vehicles. The rear car was hit, and the front car sped off and made a U-turn, but it too was hit. A mujahid shouted, ‘I avenged my brother who was killed by the Americans!’ and the assailants left. An angry mob on the street mutilated the bodies, burning them and beating them with pipes until they were partially dismembered, a gruesome scene captured on film. I asked one Kleenex salesboy if he had done it. ‘I would even pull Bush down the street!’ he smiled. A labourer said, ‘God and the mujahideen gave us victory. It will spread to all of Iraq and all the way to Jerusalem.’

Referring to Iraq’s Highway 10, a former US Marine currently working very closely in a civilian capacity with the Marine commanders in Fallujah explained to me, ‘Fallujah sits on a major artery between Baghdad and the rest of the world. There is no fucking way we will let them stand in our path. We’re trying to rebuild the country. Fallujah is in the way. We will be moving massive amounts of people and material in the region. We would have been using the western route a lot more if it was safe.’ I asked him who was in control of Fallujah. ‘I can tell you who is not in control,’ he said. ‘The marines.’ He told me of kidnapping incidents he knew about. ‘People disappear into the hole of Fallujah,’ he said. ‘The mujahideen control the city.’

Part Two: The Fighting Poets

On 11 May, one day after US marines conducted their last patrol into Fallujah following their decision to pull back and hand over to a Fallujah Brigade after a bloody month-long siege, hundreds of dignitaries gathered under a long tent in the city 50 kilometres west of Baghdad for a poetry celebration organised by the National Front of Iraqi Intellectuals.

Above the podium, tough looking men wearing sunglasses and grimaces looked down on the crowd. A banner above them described the event as a poetry festival to support Fallujah against the occupation. Cans of soft drinks and bottles of water were provided for the honoured guests.

‘Hey Fallujah,’ called one poet, ‘when I wrote my poem you were the most beautiful verse inside it and without your stand I could not raise my head again.’ Another poet, with the strong accent of Shia southern Iraq, declared, ‘Fallujah is full of real men.’ Bridging the Sunni-Shia divide, he referred to the important Shia martyr Hussein, who is venerated for defying Sunni tyranny: ‘From the “no” of Hussein Fallujah learned so much.’ He continued that just as ‘Hussein was supported by 70 of his followers, we have to be like his followers and end the internal strife… I have a brave friend from Fallujah and I came from Karbala.’ He led the audience in chants and hand clapping, calling for unity between Sunnis and Shias.

Another Shia poet from Baghdad, Falah al-Fatlawi, declared that radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Army of the Mahdi militia ‘awoke for Fallujah, and Sadr’s voice from Najaf’ declared the value of Fallujah. ‘We will never sell it,’ he said. ‘People sacrificed their spirit for Fallujah, one heart, one line, Sunni and Shia for Fallujah!’ Mohammed Khalil Kawkaz recited a poem called ‘The Fallujah Tragedy’ in a barely intelligible local accent. ‘Fallujah is a tall date palm,’ he said. ‘She never accepts anybody touching her dates, she will shoot arrows into the eyes of those who try to taste her, This is Fallujah, your bride, oh Euphrates! She will never fall in love with anyone but you… Americans dug in the ground and pulled out the roots of the date palm.’

Choosing an interesting metaphor, given the recent decapitation of American Nick Berg, he announced ‘We will slit the throats of our enemies!’ and added that ‘the earth hugs the destroyed houses… the women burned and the children suffered, calling to the governing council, you are deaf and dumb oh governing council! You found honour in meeting him who pillaged Fallujah [the Americans].’

A 12 year old boy from Najaf followed him, and the microphone was lowered to accommodate his small stature. He wore a pressed white shirt neatly tucked into his jeans, and he waved an arm angrily, pointing a finger at the sky. ‘I came from Najaf to praise the heroes of Fallujah!’ he shouted, and ended by calling to god, screaming, ‘Ya Allah! Ya Allah!’ and then burst out sobbing. Older men escorted him off as he wiped away his tears, and he was embraced and kissed in succession by the dignitaries in the front row. He returned to recite another bellicose poem, this time brandishing a Kalashnikov as long as he was tall.

Seated majestically in the centre of the crowd, prominently next to the chief of police, Colonel Sabar Fadhil al-Janabi, Sheikh Dhafer al-Ubeidi, the guest of honor, rose to speak, a white scarf framing his dark-bearded face and a gold-braided translucent cape draped over his shoulders. ‘There was never unity in Iraqi history like this,’ he said, describing the event as ‘the wedding day for Fallujah’. Muslims had not felt such joy, he said, since Saladin liberated Jerusalem in 1187.

I asked him what political plan they had for the rest of the country, and his answer was typical of what I have been hearing in Iraq for the past 13 months. ‘We want a national government that represents the Iraqi people,’ he said. When I pressed him on what type of government, he said, ‘We want any government that satisfies the Iraqi people.’ And did the tribal leader want a democracy? ‘We don’t hate democracy, we believe in democracy, but it should come from the Iraqi people. We have our own special democracy that takes Iraqi history and culture into consideration.’

Part Three: The Fallujah Model

With Fallujah being touted by Iraqi fighters as a successful example of how to liberate their country from the US-led occupation, and by the occupation leaders as a successful example of how to hand over the country to its people and avoid further bloodshed, I set out to discover the reality behind the ‘Fallujah model’.

What I found was a city run by the Iraqi resistance, itself divided between those who supported the cease-fire with occupation forces in May that ended a month’s heavy fighting in the city and those who sought to continue the struggle throughout Iraq ‘and all the way to Jerusalem’.

To learn more about the history of Fallujah’s resistance, I visited the opulent home of Abu Mohammed, a former brigadier-general in the Iraqi military. ‘After the war ended,’ he said, ‘we expected things to improve, but everything became worse – electricity, water, sewage, draining – so mosque speakers openly spoke of jihad and encouraged prayers to join it after a month of occupation.’ Abu Mohammed explained that the ‘mosque culture developed against the Americans in this year. The mosques were free. Mosque culture in Fallujah centred on the jihad. This attracted foreign Arabs who felt constrained by their own regimes, and of course there were neighbouring countries that supported this financially. Nobody in Fallujah opposed the resistance, and many different resistance groups came in. Weapons were very available in Fallujah. All soldiers and security personnel took their weapons home, and the Ba’ath Party had also distributed weapons.’

Abu Mohammed was bewildered by what he called ‘the stupidity of the Americans’, explaining, ‘They didn’t seize ammunition depots of the army that contained enormous amounts of weapons.’ The military experience, the financing and the weapons were all present in Fallujah, he said, and ‘the nature of the people here is violent because they grow up with weapons from childhood, and weapons become part of our personality’. He added, ‘The imams of mosques took over the defence of Fallujah efficiently.’

On the large concrete blocks that guard the Fallujah provisional council from attack, I found the same resistance posters I had seen elsewhere in the city and throughout the west of the country. The resistance had capable graphic designers working for it. ‘Iraq is the beginning of the end of the occupation,’ it said, showing a fist lunging out of Iraq into an Iraqi flag. On the flag it said, ‘Congratulations to Fallujah’s people – jihad, martyrdom, victory.’ Two armed resistance fighters were on either side, their faces covered by keffiyehs. A US flag with a Star of David on it was on fire, its flames burning American soldiers. ‘The Islamic Media League’ produced the poster.

Inside, Saad Ala al-Rawi, a lawyer and head of the local provisional council, was receiving petitioners behind his desk. He had a thin moustache and wore the Ba’athist ‘safari’ uniform of matching shirt and pants. He too mentioned the 29 April 2003 school demonstrations as a key event. ‘The resistance started that day,’ he said. ‘Fallujah was the first city that resisted the occupation. The killings continued when they would open fire randomly on us and raid our houses. Because of these events, sympathy with the resistance increased.’ His 45-member council was formed on 1 April this year: ‘We have spent most of our time negotiating with them [the Americans] over their human rights violations.’ I asked him if they would shoot at US troops should they re-enter the city. ‘Let me ask you this,’ he said. ‘If someone invades your house, will you just stand by?’

Part Four: All Power to the Sheikh

Abdel Basit Turki, the former interim human rights minister, is from western Iraq, born in Haditha, a town to the north of Fallujah – though when I asked him where he was from he only smiled and said, ‘I am an Iraqi.’

Turki was an economics professor who never left Iraq under Saddam’s regime. He served as minister from 30 August 2003 until 8 April this year, when he resigned to protest against US actions in Fallujah. ‘I resigned because the American military used force to solve problems that could be solved by referring to the Iraqi people,’ he told me, adding, ‘Their attitude to the Iraqi citizens makes the future of human rights in Iraq insecure.’ He complained about ‘Americans using Apaches to raid Sadr City, besieging Fallujah and even using fighter jets against the city, converting homes into mass graves. As minister of human rights I had to resign to show the people I identified with them.’ He complained that his challenge had been twofold, dealing with ‘the former regime’s human rights violations and the violations resulting from the occupation by foreign troops. My main challenge [is] to educate people about human rights during an occupation. You cannot educate people about human rights when they are being bombed and killed.’ He added that he had received pressure from the Americans to deal only with human rights violations of the previous regime.

Turki’s companion, Sheikh Ahmad, from the mosque of Risala al-Muhamdia in Samarra, a city to the north of Baghdad, had also come to pay his respects to Iraq’s first liberated city. ‘What happened in Fallujah is expected to happen in other cities in Iraq,’ he told me, predicting an intifada shaabia (people’s uprising). ‘All the people of Iraq will erupt in revolution, and at that moment it will make no difference if you are Sunni or Shia,’ he said.

A 12 year old boy entered the room, to the delight of the mosque’s leadership. They introduced him as Saad, a brave boy who had fought as a capable sniper during the battle with the Americans. He was hugged and kissed by all the men in the room, who congratulated him for being a batal, or hero. Already a seasoned scrapper, he smiled proudly, and thanked them in a hoarse adult voice with the confidence of a grown man. He was insolent to the older and bigger boys, who seemed scared of him. I was nervous around him too – he reminded me of a rabid pitbull. After prayers I saw him lingering outside the mosque, slinging a Kalashnikov with the magazine inside, providing security.

Sheikh Hisham al-Alusi was wheeled in, and the men came over to kiss him on the head and praise Allah for his recovery. He explained that he had been shot three months before. ‘They shot 30 bullets at me, but only one entered my body,’ he explained. It was his first day back at the mosque, and Sheikh Dhafer, a resistance leader, deferred to him, letting him take the desk. Hisham was pale and spoke in a whisper. He had been a member of the US-backed town council and had eschewed incitements of violence. Two masked men in a car pulled up next to him when he was leaving the Hadhra mosque and shot him. The people in the mosque told me he had been shot by the resistance, apparently either out of a desire to hide the fina, or internal strife, in their community, very typical of Muslim clerics, or simply to pin the blame on the Americans. When I confronted a source about having been lied to, he told me implausibly that the assailants were in fact US agents.

Soon after, General Jassim Mohammed Salih of the Fallujah Brigade walked in, wearing a white dishdash and white scarf. After exchanging greetings with the guests in the increasingly crowded office, he briefed them on the latest political events, barking gruffly in clipped military style, his jowls shaking, as he fingered yellow prayer beads. ‘I spoke to Brahimi yesterday and he says, “hi” to all of you,’ he said, referring to United Nations representative to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi. He then defended the need for the Fallujah army he did or did not command, depending on whether one listens to Fallujans or Americans. ‘Everybody else has militias and it’s not called terrorism,’ he said. ‘But when an army defends its city this is called terrorism.’ Jassim stressed the central role of the army, explaining that ‘the army is the people’s, not Saddam’s, and anybody who comes in and attacks the institution of the army finds half a million people carrying guns against him’. ‘Even Saddam,’ smiled Dhafer. I left to allow the unofficial town council to meet in private.

Part Five: The Tongue of the Mujahideen

After listening to a sermon by Sheikh Dhafer al-Ubeidi, a key cleric in organising the resistance in Fallujah, the next day I returned to the mosque for a formal interview with the 37 year old sheikh.

Dhafer has a wide nose and long narrow eyes that disappeared whenever he smiled, which was often, covered by round cheeks. When I asked him if he was the real leader of Fallujah, Dhafer smiled disingenuously. ‘I am just a simple member of the city who lived through all the suffering of Fallujah,’ he said. I told him I had heard he was the architect of the victory over the Americans and he grinned proudly but whispered, ‘Don’t mention that for my security.’

Dhafer admitted that he belonged to the unofficial City Consultative Council of which Taghlub al-Alusi was the head. He refused to tell me how many members the council had or who they were, but he did tell me it had a core of about 50 professionals, tribal and religious leaders, and ‘those who stayed in the city’, meaning mujahideen.

‘They must withdraw from all of Fallujah, including the neighbouring villages,’ he told me. Not satisfied with limiting the liberation to Fallujah proper, he sought to extend it to the surrounding villages, several hundred thousand more people and a much wider zone of freedom. Like all Fallujans, he viewed time as before or after ‘the events’. ‘Before 4 April,’ he said, ‘the first day of the siege, all of Fallujah was closed by American troops without us knowing about it. The US administration said the siege would not open until we got the people who killed the four [US] contractors.’

Though I knew from others in the mosque that Dhafer had commanded foreign fighters in Fallujah, he denied the presence of any, telling me that ‘everybody knows Fallujah was the main source for the former army and its officers, including high ranking officers, so many sent their families out and stayed to fight. This is why the US marines that managed to destroy several South American countries in hours could not even destroy the Julan neighbourhood of Fallujah. We believe god was involved in the fighting. We know we did not have equal power, but god was on our side. They demoralised us with their power and we demoralised them by shouting, “God is great!” from the same mosques they were shooting at.’ I had seen at least four damaged manars, or mosque towers, in the city: ‘We demand that the manars not be repaired so that generations remember what they did.’

Part Six: Mean and Clean Streets

The day two German journalists, Uwe Sauerman and Manya Schodche, nearly experienced sahel, the Iraqi lynching made famous by the death in Fallujah of four American contractors employed by US company Blackwater, the city’s Mujahideen Council banned all journalists from the city and warned that those who entered might be killed.

Taghlub, a key resistance leader, and the men were very upset – they nearly lost control of the town and their own power. If the Germans had been killed the Americans would surely have returned. The foreign mujahideen based in the Julan neighbourhood were proving especially recalcitrant. They were harassing Iraqis for smoking cigarettes and even for drinking water using their left hand, considered impure. They had banned alcohol, western films, make-up, hairdressers, ‘behaving like women’ (ie homosexuality), and even dominoes in the coffee houses. Men found publicly drunk had been flogged, and I was told of a dozen men beaten and imprisoned for selling drugs. Islamic courts were being established in association with mujahideen units and mosque leaders, meting out punishment consistent with the Koran. Erstwhile Ba’ath Party members told me they were expiating the sins of their former secularism, and Ba’ath ideology had now become Islamist. An assistant to the mayor confirmed that there were Islamic courts with their own qadis, or judges, who acted independently of the police. He added that all the spies had already been killed, ‘but before we killed them we made sure they were spies’. He was concerned about ‘the mujahideen who do not know Sheikh Dhafer and the men of the Hadhra’ – the foreigners and uncooperative mujahideen who sought to expand the liberated zone beyond Fallujah.

Fallujah was still a safe haven for the mujahideen, including foreign fighters who were supporting the resistance. Video compact discs (VCDs) with footage of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Shia fighters battling Americans in Nasiriyah were sold in Fallujah, alongside propaganda films for Sunni resistance groups based in Fallujah, such as Ansar al-Sunna and the Iraqi Islamic Army, with a cheerful reggae-like beat accompanying victorious Islamic music. Young foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia and other countries were shown giving testimonies before going out on suicide operations. The VCDs depicted various operations conducted by the resistance, primarily against US military targets, as well as various crimes of the occupation, destroyed homes, abusing prisoners, and a lot of bloody dead people accompanied by mournful chanting Islamic music.

The mujahideen wanted to continue the battle even after the 28 June handover of sovereignty. ‘As long as the Americans are in Iraq we will fight,’ they said. Radical Fallujan clerics had admitted to a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) official I spoke to that the Fallujah settlement ‘is an opportunity to secure themselves and be sovereign and expand the liberation’. If the Americans could not quell the rebellion, surely no Iraqi force would be able to, and the victory in Fallujah had only encouraged the resistance throughout Iraq.

Hijackings and kidnappings continued apace. Two trucks with furniture owned by a foreign company that supplied the Americans were hijacked near Fallujah. They were headed to the Americans’ al-Fau base. A man from Fallujah came to the company headquarters and told them they could have the trucks back for money, as long as the merchandise was not bound for the Americans. A terrified representative from the company handled the negotiations, which went through the influential Sheikh Abdallah Janabi. Janabi’s men were very upset about thieves giving the mujahideen a bad reputation and swore they would kill the thieves, though eventually the trucks were returned for US$4,000.

On 9 June, 12 members of the Fallujah Brigade were killed in a mortar attack on their camp at the edge of town. On 10 June a Lebanese worker and two Iraqi colleagues had been captured on the highway near Fallujah. Their bodies were found two days later. Their throats had been slit. Brigadier Mark Kimmitt, the spokesman for the CPA, announced that the CPA was not satisfied with the performance of the Fallujah Brigade and implied that the marines might have to enter the city again. A small patrol did so on 14 June. The next day the marines, who said they had ‘prepared for a battle reminiscent of Mogadishu’, had instead found that Iraqi police and soldiers turned out in full force to ensure the patrol wasn’t tampered with as they passed the sand-filled barriers into the city.

Demonstrators in Fallujah called for their homes to be rebuilt with money from Iraq’s oil revenue. That same day, US planes bombed yet another house allegedly used by Zarqawi’s network, killing 14 people.

My contact’s increasingly erratic behaviour convinced me that if I went to Fallujah again I would not return. I left Iraq, flying out this time to avoid the checkpoints on Highway 10. The US war in Iraq, meant to democratise the region, had instead radicalised it, created a united front, with Fallujans fighting for the honour of Palestine and Saudis fighting in the name of Fallujah.

Copyright 2004, Asia Times Online Ltd

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