FALLUJAH – This is the heart of the Iraqi resistance. Fallujah, with a population of almost 500,000 people, traditionally “the city of mosques”, is now called “the city of heroes” as it is at the core of the Sunni triangle (Baghdad-Ramadi-Tikrit) where most of the resistance to the US occupation is taking place.
President George W Bush told the United Nations on Tuesday that he is not willing to give back full sovereignty to Iraq any time soon. US Proconsul L Paul Bremer said last week that Iraqis are not yet capable of ruling themselves. The citizens of Fallujah have other ideas.
The highway from the capital to Fallujah – 43 miles (69 kilometers) west of Baghdad and the scene of one of the fiercest tank battles of the war in April – passes past Abu Ghraeb prison, one of the symbols of Saddam Hussein’s repression which is now the American occupation’s largest prison.
Practically every day in Fallujah there are attacks against the Americans. And the repression is also fierce – all around Fallujah. This Tuesday, for example, the 82nd Airborne intervened with full force in al-Sajr, a village 15 kilometers north of Fallujah, leaving two big craters in the courtyards of two houses.
At the Fallujah hospital, Abed Rashid, a 50-year-old retired civil servant, said that he was sleeping with his family on the roof of his house when he heard Kalashnikov fire. As he ran downstairs, American helicopters started firing what he believed were rockets. Rashid, wounded in the chest and left foot, says, “This is genocide. This is not about overthrowing a government or regime change.” Two boys, Hussein, 11, and his brother Tahseen, nine, were also severely wounded. Their father, Ali Khalaf Mohammed, 45, was killed.
The mayor of Fallujah, Taha Bdaiwi, officiates in the Qaem Maqameiah – a building that not without irony was the former general security headquarters of the Ba’ath Party. The ante-chamber of his office is a true court of miracles, where an endless stream of citizens wait patiently to express all sorts of grievances. Says a local sheikh, “When the Americans are attacked on the highway, they always come to the nearest villages. And they take many prisoners, without any evidence. There was an attack near a factory: they took all the families living around it, including the women. They are using families as human shields. Some of the arrested are older than 50.”
Many people in Fallujah repeat the same story: when American soldiers search houses for guns and find nothing, they take all the cash and gold. Fallujah’s erratic supply of “national electricity”, as the locals put it – two hours on, two hours off – is due to resistance attacks: “Last week there was no electricity because of resistance attacks. Electricity depends on loyalty to Americans.” A pipeline was bombed twice in one week “because people believe this oil is not benefiting Iraq”. But a local branch of Rafidain Bank was never attacked – even if there are always two American soldiers inside: “People know they are protecting their money.”
Taha Bdaiwi’s office walls are conspicuously adorened by two military maps of Fallujah, from Fort Stewart, Georgia, one of them a satellite photo, as well as two diplomas offered by the American military for his collaboration. The new chief of police keeps coming in and out. The mayor cannot give any orders without first negotiating with an American military official sitting in the same building. Bdaiwi, already involved in civil administration beforehand, says, “This area is bigger than Tikrit. People complain services are very poor.” He spends most of his time in meetings with teams in charge of rebuilding and reconstruction. The money will come from the city’s budget, but mostly from the Americans, who from April to September spent US$1.9 million. The city gets a paltry monthly 360 million dinars (US$1 = roughly 2,200 dinars) from the Ministry of Finance to pay for salaries and services. Anything else has to come from the Americans.
“There are many projects in the pipeline – a water project, a bridge, a hospital, civilian complexes – but no new projects,” says the mayor. He is trying to bring energy from Baghdad and Ramadi. “I demanded two big generators, but they have not arrived yet.” He bought two generators for water plants, but at present the Americans deliver water for some areas every day. He lists the key popular demands: water, electricity, security and health. The mayor admits indirectly that the real story about the pipelines is that the Americans want Iraqi police to protect them because they don’t want more American casualties. But the mayor is a realist, “We need the Americans to pay. We do everything we can. We can’t do anything without money. We need them.”
Sheikh Khaled Saleh, a Sunni cleric in his early 50s, says that “although unorganized and without leadership, the Iraqi resistance is a ball of fire in America’s face that will bring its end in Iraq”. His sermons at Friday prayers draw thousands every week to Badawi, one of the main mosques in the “city of mosques”. Sheikh Saleh is sure that thousands of young men in Fallujah were and still are influenced by Osama bin Laden and his positioning as an heroic Arab mujahideen. The sheikh is also sure “we have made the Americans dizzy”.
Fallujah is littered with graffiti. Some is pro-Saddam. None is pro-bin Laden. All encourage local citizens to harass and kill American soldiers. Posters plastered across the city warn everyone to stay very far from US convoys to avoid being hit. In the kebab shops, people say, “The Americans are cowards. They are now afraid of any gunshot coming from anywhere.”
A group of prominent citizens of Fallujah got together and agreed to talk to Asia Times Online to explain “the real situation”, as they put it. Considering the fact that for the Governing Council in Baghdad and for Bremer, anybody telling the truth about the occupation can be accused of “incitement to violence”, their identities should be protected.
This week, the Governing Council’s spokesman, Intefadh Qanbar – a protege of Pentagon protege Ahmad Chalabi – told the media that the offices of television networks al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya in Iraq would be closed. Within two hours, this decision by the council turned into “no cooperation from the council” for two weeks – which for all practical purposes means nothing considering that the council sits in a bunker in Baghdad and is extremely uncooperative anyway.
Bremer’s legal advisers have in fact established press censorship in Iraq. And al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are prime targets as they remain fierce critics of the occupation. Under the current press censorship laws, even to report about the killing of Iraqi civilians near Fallujah by missiles from American helicopters could fall into “incitement to violence”.
For starters, the citizens of Fallujah don’t agree with the usual statistics according to which the Shi’ites make 62 percent of the Iraqi population. After a careful tabulation of the population in the main Iraqi cities, they insist more realistic figures would be 6 million Kurds, 8 million Shi’ites and 8.7 million Sunnis: this would prove their point that Sunnis are woefully under-represented in the Governing Council.
For Fallujah citizens, “The mayor is an honest man. He was one of the most wanted by Saddam’s regime. His family is one of the top five families in the city. Most of the population trust him and chose him.” They insist that “people here are as religious as the Shi’ites in Najaf. So the population did not agree with the way the Americans came to Iraq.” Unlike Baghdad, no shops in Fallujah sell alcohol or CDs. At least half of the population was satisfied with the fall of Saddam: “We didn’t want Saddam. But after the invasion, with the bad behavior of the Americans, people are saying it was better under Saddam.” The citizens are keen to stress that in the first two months after the fall of Baghdad, there was absolutely no resistance.
The resistance officially began on June 28. “A peaceful gathering went to the mayor’s building. There were troops inside. Then it went to a school: there was a military base inside. People were shouting: ‘We want democracy, electricity, water’. The Americans opened fire, at first in to the air. Then against people. An old woman in her house beside the base was hit, along with her three sons: one was dead, one lost his leg, another lost his kidney. Many people went to hospital to donate blood. There were 73 wounded. They had to wait for more than two hours to be sent to hospital. No car could carry more than one wounded – and one car only every 30 minutes. The next day people went to the cemetery. As is our custom, they opened fire in the air to celebrate the dead. Many American helicopters and convoys then came and opened fire. That’s how it started. There were 21 dead in two days.”
The citizens of Fallujah add, “The Americans have no right to invade houses, search our women and also steal gold and money. The Americans played a double game with the Iraqis. They said they would give us democracy. People only understood what they meant when they came. Outside Iraq, they treat dogs better than Iraqis.”
The United Nations “is controlled by America. It will never help Iraq. It’s not independent. If the UN comes, it will be attacked. Any foreign forces – Turkish or Pakistani, even Arabs. These forces will do what the Americans want, in an indirect way. No Arab countries will send soldiers, because they support the resistance.”
The citizens of Fallujah say that there are no American patrols in the city any more: only convoys coming from and going to Baghdad: “If there are three convoys, at least two will be attacked. Every convoy crossing Fallujah is covered by air support. If there is a patrol, the American soldiers attract children living in the area and use them as human shields. Is that freedom?”
The 25-member, American-appointed Governing Council is considered by everybody in Fallujah “an imported government”. With two glaring exceptions: Dr Hashimi, a Shi’ite and a diplomat, who barely escaped an assassination attempt last Saturday (widely condemned in Fallujah); and Mohsen Abdul Hameed, from the Iraqi Islamic Party, actually the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Saddam era, Hameed lived underground building the clandestine Brotherhood base. Ahmad Chalabi, who is the rotating chairman of the council until the end of this month, is regarded as an “Ali Baba” – thief – and the butt of many jokes. It is widely assumed that at least 85 percent of the Iraqi population does not trust the Governing Council.
For the citizens of Fallujah, the Najaf bombing in which Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim was killed was the work of the Americans, “to split Shi’ites and Sunnis”. They are totally convinced that the Americans engineered the bombings of the Jordanian embassy, the UN headquarters and in Najaf so that they could “go ask help for from the UN to get rid of their problems”.
The citizens of Fallujah are adamant: the resistance is composed of members of families angry with or victims of violent American behavior, as well as former army soldiers and officers. They swear that they have not seen any Arab fedayeen (fighters) – and definitely no al-Qaeda. And there are no Ba’ath Party members in this indigenous resistance: “They are bad people. They have money. If you had money, would you risk your life resisting?” They insist that “the main reason for resisting is loyalty to your own country”.
Dr Kamal Aldien Alkisim, born in the ancient city of Heet on the Euphrates, tortured by Saddam’s regime and general secretary of a new political party – the Iraqi National Fraction, which “emphasizes Iraq’s unity and independence on all its land” – supports the struggle in Fallujah. “The resistance here does not have any relation with any groups. It is led by families. The main reason is the bad behavior of the Americans. There is no relationship with Saddam or Islamic groups. These groups are using the name of Fallujah.” The locals are adamant that they have never seen anybody from self-described resistance organizations like Owda (Return), led by one Mohammed al-Samidai from Mosul, or Afaa (“Snake”), which sprang up from the Ba’ath Party in Kirkuk, or even an alliance of the Ba’ath with tribal elders coordinated by one Abu Hasan from Hajiwa.
The citizens of Fallujah don’t care about Saddam’s cassettes routinely broadcast by Arab satellite networks: “Saddam is a spy. He sold Iraq. When CDs of Saddam calling for a jihad were distributed, people in Fallujah stopped the resistance for a few days.” They insist on a big mistake made by the West is “to think that Saddam is the resistance just because he is a Sunni”.
After a lavish lunch, enter Sheikh Abu Bashir, one of the most prominent sheikhs in the region, a high officer in the Iraqi army, wounded in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The sheikh does not mince his accusations against Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and member of the Governing Council: he says that he witnessed many episodes of cruelty against villagers in the mid-1980s and accuses Talabani of complicity in the Halabja massacre of Kurds in 1988.
The Sheikh concurs that “the biggest problem for the Americans is when they dissolved the army. “They were trying to damage Iraqi society. So everybody immediately joined the resistance.” The sheikh says, “The Americans now demand UN forces because they are in a circle of resistance and they cannot get out. When they started the war, they had no rights from the UN. So they have to leave this country, even by force. This is not just my opinion, our God ordered us to resist them as invasion forces.”
These citizens of Fallujah are not part of the armed struggle. They only admit that the stream of attacks against Americans are conducted by very small groups armed with roadside bombs, rocket launchers and Strella anti-aircraft guns. Most are former army officers, with the operations financed by local businessmen ready to donate thousands of dollars. The regimental force is always the tribal chief.
Convincing tools for the young and the restless are multiple: defense of tribal values, defense of the motherland, and most of all defense against the “bad behavior” of the Americans. The mujahideen can count on total popular complicity. When al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya – the nemesis of the Governing Council – show images of American casualties, not only in Fallujah but also in Baghdad, people stop talking and their faces lighten up. The running commentary is inevitable: “We thanked them for our freedom, but they should have left long ago.” At least in Fallujah, as far as the American occupation is concerned, the battle for hearts and minds is irretrievably lost.