Father who left reluctantly waits to fight another day
December 1, 2004
By Anthony Shadid
In a cramped room that has become his refuge, with walls of grimy plaster and sloppy brickwork, a man known as Abu Mohammed sat with his children.
It was evening in Baghdad, and the Muslim call to prayer wafted over the neighborhood that takes its name from its main avenue, Palestine Street. As the invocation became audible, scratchy but melodic, Abu Mohammed paused for a moment in respectful silence. Soon after, the electricity returned to his shack, powering a lone fluorescent light that offset the gray of dusk. He sipped his sweet, dark tea and dragged again from a locally made Miami cigarette.
Then, with humility and pride, 39-year-old Abu Mohammed began his story -- a tale of death, life and prospective martyrdom. Unlike so many accounts of a conflict that has reshaped Iraq, it came not from the U.S. forces prosecuting the war, but from among the ranks of the men they fought.
A blacksmith turned insurgent, Abu Mohammed undertook an odyssey this month that carried him from the battlefields of Fallujah, roiled with religion, to a harrowing escape across the Euphrates River and a lonely exile in Baghdad, where he waits to fight another day. It began with the death of his son, Ahmed, whose short life was ended by an American bullet.
"He was only 13, but he was the equal of a thousand men," Abu Mohammed said, in words that served as an epitaph.
His hard face, framed in short, graying hair, softened. Almost imperceptibly, a glimmer passed over his limpid eyes. Sitting on a thin, tattered mat with a floral design, he leaned his short, wiry body forward, his hands clasped at his waist.
"He had more guts than me, a hundred times more," the father said. "He was still a child, but he was a hero."
Mascot becomes a man
In the fervent streets of Fallujah before this month's U.S. assault, residents recalled, Ahmed was a mascot of sorts among the hundreds of men who called themselves mujaheddin, guerrillas fired by faith. He was shorter than his father and more conscious of his looks: He wore his dark hair fashionably long and, residents said, preferred shirts that showed off biceps built with a regimen of weights.
He spent his hours at the Hadhra Muhammadiya mosque, a gathering place for fighters, where he became familiar with insurgent leaders such as Abdullah Janabi and Omar Hadid. Abu Mohammed said Janabi gave Ahmed a bottle of fragrance -- a tradition of the prophet Muhammad, who adored musk and believed its aroma could awaken the spirit.
Ahmed joined the war early, becoming a fighter at 12. Residents said that in his first operation in March, he hung out at the mayor's office for days, selling candy on the street and joking with U.S. soldiers. Once his presence became familiar, he managed to leave a homemade bomb at the building, which detonated. Soon after, he joined his father as a fighter.
"I consider him a man, and I treat him as a friend," one resident recalled Abu Mohammed saying of his son.
Beginning in April, Fallujah became a virtually independent fiefdom of Iraqi and foreign insurgents, a redoubt where car bombings, abductions, beheadings and attacks on the U.S. military were planned and executed. U.S. forces put pressure on the city and the insurgents, gradually increasing it until, in the first week of November, artillery attacks and air raids signaled the ground assault that would follow.
"The Americans were testing us," Abu Mohammed said. "They wanted to see what kind of power we had."
He said Ahmed insisted on serving on the front line, donning a black tracksuit that an insurgent leader had just given him. The boy's mother was angry, Abu Mohammed acknowledged, but her protests were in vain.
On a clear day before the ground assault, guerrillas scurried around the narrow streets of the Shuhada neighborhood. A barrage of artillery and air raids lasted from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., Abu Mohammed said. There was a break, then fighting resumed at 4 p.m. Abu Mohammed sent his son to fetch ammunition from among the rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells, rockets and AK-47 assault rifles that he kept in a hole next to their one-room house.
The boy ran, crouching, about 600 yards down a street lined with ocher-colored buildings. As he did, he was struck about 6:10 p.m. by a bullet whose source his father did not see. It pierced the back of Ahmed's neck and tore through his chest. The boy was buried three hours later, at a cemetery next to the Farouk mosque, with four others killed that day.
The mystique of martyrdom prevented Abu Mohammed from mourning the death of his son. Ahmed died, as he put it, "in the path of God." But three weeks on, he allowed himself a moment of reflection: "He was one of my ribs," he said.
The boy's mother has yet to learn of her son's death. She thinks he is staying with relatives, Abu Mohammed said.
"I cannot tell her now," he said plaintively.
He thrust his hands forward. "She's a mother. What do you think her reaction will be?"
'Like celebrating a feast'
The battle for Fallujah began on Nov. 8 and, under cover of darkness, Abu Mohammed began fighting.
Residents said he already had a reputation as a fighter. Before the war he was a blacksmith and a day laborer, making barely enough money to support two wives and nine children, all of whom slept in one room, with a kitchen adjoining it. Months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, he joined the ranks of insurgents. He said he worked as a scout, then ran weapons, then became a renowned sniper.
A man not given to boasting, he said he had carried out 17 or 18 "operations" outside Fallujah, in the arid expanse of western Iraq. Since he began fighting, he said, 30 men he knew have died. After an operation this fall, when he fired rockets at a U.S. base in Habbaniya after sneaking past fortifications, residents said Janabi, the insurgent leader, nicknamed him wawi, or jackal.
"When I shoot a target with a rocket-propelled grenade, it's like celebrating a feast," he said.
While atrocities unleashed by the insurgents -- beheadings and bombings that have killed scores of civilians -- have at least anecdotally seemed to unleash popular revulsion, there remains a constituency in Iraq that celebrates the guerrilla war. Myths have grown up around it, all infused with religious imagery and notions of divine intervention. Residents trade stories: that the knights of the prophet Muhammad were seen riding through Fallujah's streets on horseback with their swords drawn; that birds guided by God cast stones at Apache helicopters; that a scented breeze descends on the fighters as they battle U.S. troops.
Abu Mohammed had his tale.
At a checkpoint this summer, he was stopped by U.S. and Iraqi troops with a rocket-propelled grenade and three hand grenades in his trunk. He said he beseeched God: "I am fighting for you." The troops opened the trunk, he said, and found nothing.
The fighting in Fallujah, though, was nothing like Abu Mohammed had seen. He recalled the battle in April, when U.S. troops first tried to take the city but brokered a truce that eventually put it in insurgents' hands. This month's battle, he said, was far more ferocious.
"Last April, they had specific targets. In this attack, there was nothing specific," he said. "They attacked randomly."
Abu Mohammed said he was one of a group of 60 fighters, part of a guerrilla force that he said numbered between 2,000 and 2,500. Of those, he put a specific number on foreign fighters with them: 416. He said most of them wore blue or black tracksuits.
In the four days he fought, he said, he saw nine of his colleagues killed. Throughout the fight, he said, they were well armed from ample stockpiles, but they were overmatched. U.S. air support and shelling overwhelmed them, he said, coming from "above, the side and in front of us."
"You could hide easier from the rain than from the shelling we saw," he said.
On one night, he said, the fighters were surprised by a tank that no one heard until it was 50 yards away. Two of his men were killed before he and six others managed to retreat.
"We never heard it," he said. "In a fight you leave your ears open, but we didn't hear anything."
He shook his head. "What kind of tank was that?" he asked.
In the propaganda that surrounds the insurgency, much of it on video CDs that can be bought for 50 cents in Baghdad, the images celebrate the technological divide. Footage of blasts from a tank barrel and fire from helicopter gunships shifts seamlessly to pictures of bloodied corpses and women in black, yelling.
The Americans, Abu Mohammed said, are "strong in their technology, but I've never seen cowards like them."
A hint of anger flashed across his usually calm demeanor. "Fifteen thousand Americans against 2,000 mujaheddin, with their technology and their firepower? They say they were victorious, but what kind of victory was that?"
"We have a principle: defending our country," he said. "Why are they coming here? For what?"
A long, fearful crossing
The night of Nov. 11 marked Abu Mohammed's flight.
Some of the insurgent leaders, he said, decided to smuggle out families still in Shuhada, the last stronghold of the fighters in the southern part of Fallujah. U.S. forces had surrounded the city, blocking traffic in and out, leaving the Euphrates River that meanders alongside the western edge of the city as one of the few means of escape.
At every turn in the journey, time seemed to slow.
With about 80 others, Abu Mohammed's family left home at 11 p.m. The walk to the river usually takes 15 minutes, he said; with the thunder of artillery barrages, it took three hours. They walked past corpses in the street, some mauled by dogs, to an area shrouded by pomegranate and orange trees and date palms that ran to the edge of the river's sandy bank.
"We took nothing, not even our clothes," he said.
Four boats awaited them, one with a motor. Fighters ordered women and children to split up, fearful that one blast might kill an entire family. The command ignited chaos, he recalled, as women began yelling for their children. Some of them groped in the dark to make sure they were safe.
"You can imagine when the shell lands in the water. It's like the river is burning," Abu Mohammed said. "I can't describe the fear. They were so scared. Only God kept the explosions away from us."
The winter is moderate in Iraq, but the water was chilly and the current was strong. The boats crossed gingerly to the far bank, taking his 15-year-old son, his 10-year-old daughter, a 7-year-old son and so on.
The hours passed. Worried that the sun would soon rise, Abu Mohammed said, he took his youngest son, 3-year-old Abdel-Qadir, and began swimming. Halfway across, one of the boats passed, and he put the boy inside and returned to the bank.
At 4 a.m., the shelling became so severe that the boats did not cross again, forcing those left behind to fend for themselves. One of his wives could not swim, so Abu Mohammed waded into the water with her. She struggled, almost choking him. Time again slowed; a swim he said usually took 10 minutes ended up lasting 45.
Dawn had broken as he stood on the other bank, a half-mile downriver. It was too dangerous to return to Fallujah in daylight.
"I wanted to go back, but the sun had already risen," Abu Mohammed said, his voice tinged with regret. "I was trying to find an eye of a needle to get back to Fallujah, but I couldn't find it."
'There will be jihad'
More than two weeks later, Abu Mohammed sat in a home that friends had found for him in Baghdad.
A television set and satellite dish perched on a rickety wooden stand, donated by his sister. Mattresses were tossed over straw mats and a brown carpet given to the family by friends. A bouquet of pink and yellow plastic flowers decorated one wall. The others were bare but for a Koran wrapped in a blue bag that hung from a nail, higher than anything else in the room.
The disparate forces that make up the insurgency in Iraq are, in many ways, united by what they lack: a political program. In its stead, among many Iraqi guerrillas at least, is a visceral nationalism more and more reflected through the lens of religion, a force that has come to mold the insurgency. Islam provides the vocabulary, the imagery and the faith in death itself as a cause. There is little ideology beyond God, no prescription for a future government.
Before the war, Abu Mohammed called himself a sympathizer of Hussein. No longer.
In a conversation that lasted hours, he rejected the idea of muqawima, the Arabic word for resistance. The word is too secular. It is a jihad, he said, and the men who fight are mujaheddin, obligated by religion to fight non-Muslim occupiers.
"Until the day of judgment, there will be jihad," Abu Mohammed said, his words slow. "If something happened in Lebanon, I would find a bridge to cross and go there to fight." In a calm voice, he described his obligation as a matter of fact, a self-evident truth, and he quoted the Koran to illustrate his point: "And slay them wherever you catch them."
He clutched a pillow in his lap as he sat cross-legged. A tattered white curtain hung over the window, its pane broken.
"Jihad is not only against the Americans, it's also waged against the people who support them," he said. "They say the government is Iraqi, but it's really American. It's an Iraqi on the throne, but the throne itself is American."
Even among those sympathetic to the insurgency, some have denounced the beheadings carried out by the guerrillas. Abu Mohammed made exceptions: Foreign contractors, aid workers and journalists should not be killed. But no punishment, he said, was severe enough for traitors. He quoted Janabi, the insurgent leader: Killing a spy is the equivalent of killing 100 Americans.
"What is the penalty of being a spy?" he asked. "I swear by the holy Koran that no one is beheaded unless he confesses that he did this or that." He quoted another verse, looking again at the hanging Koran: "Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of God and your enemies."
His 3-year-old, Abdel-Qadir, played next to him, shining a flashlight in his father's eyes. Abu Mohammed ignored him, seemingly taken by his own words. He insisted he would return to Fallujah soon. Not to avenge his son, he said, but to prosecute the fight.
"I wish I could leave today," he said, shaking his head. "I will kiss your hand if you can show me the way."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company