December 5, 2003
THE FOE

A Tale of War: Iraqi Describes Battling G.I.'s

By IAN FISHER

New York Times

HAWIJA, Iraq, Dec. 4 — The man was in the car for less than two minutes Thursday when he pulled out a hand grenade. He had been carrying it, like an apple, in a little red shopping bag. He smiled. The other passengers winced.

"If you don't pull the pin," he explained calmly, "it won't explode."

The grenade was not, apparently, a threat but the man's way of trying to establish that he was, as he claimed, a member of the "resistance." Little is known about these forces except that they keep killing anyone associated with the American-led occupation and are making the American mission in Iraq very dangerous and difficult.

It was unclear why this man, who said he was a former soldier, and appeared sturdy and fit, perhaps 35 years old, was willing to talk to a Western reporter. His account could not be verified. He readily agreed to an interview after being introduced by a man who identified himself to The New York Times as a local reporter. The local reporter offered to make contact with what he termed the local resistance in this city in the Sunni Muslim heartland, the center for violence against Americans in Iraq.

American commanders say the people fighting them appear more brazen recently, and in recent weeks they have even circulated leaflets in Hawija asking all Iraqis to join them. Grenade still in hand and with a nerve-racking politeness, this fighter steered the car's driver to a cemetery here where he said several of his comrades, killed by American soldiers, were buried.

There, in almost an hour of conversation behind a wall, keeping an unending vigil for American soldiers on patrol, the man described what he said were operations of his cell, which he said consisted of some 15 men, mostly former soldiers, who take no direct orders from anyone, but are in contact with other similar groups.

"People with more military experience than me set the targets and make the plans," he said.

"It is like, `I have a friend, who has another friend,' " he said. "We have contacts between the cells but there is no real organization."

Some of the details given by the man — whose full story could not be independently corroborated — dovetailed with comments from the American military. The man said, for instance, that six insurgents were killed in an Aug. 30 firefight with the Americans, the same number given by Maj. Douglas Vincent, a spokesman for the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which has responsibility for Hawija.

Major Vincent dismissed as "very creative" the man's assertion that his cell had killed a total of 500 Americans. Six Americans have been killed in the area since late March, the major said.

The man's description squared largely with that of American military officials, who say they believe the attacks are carried out by loosely organized groups, composed of soldiers and others loyal to Mr. Hussein, as well as by Muslims from other countries who have come to Iraq to fight Americans. This fighter said he had seen no foreigners in the ranks of the resistance.

He said his group had mounted about 35 attacks locally, of which he participated in "more than five." His comments suggested a good knowledge of weapons, and he said his cell used Katyusha rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, large machine guns, AK-47's, mines and homemade bombs detonated by remote control (though he would not say exactly what kind of remote was used). He said they bought some weapons with their own money and looted others from unguarded ammunition dumps left over from before the war.

"We want the world to know that Bush, the biggest criminal of all, and Blair, that monkey of the desert, will not be able to control the Iraqis," he said. "We will not allow them to kill Iraqis. I am speaking before God, on my behalf and that of the other mujahedeen."

His choice of the word "mujahedeen" was perhaps one of the most telling details about what this insurgency would like to be.

The word means "holy warrior," and for many Muslims it connotes brave struggles against occupiers over centuries, against the crusaders a millennium ago or against the Russians in Afghanistan a mere two decades ago. These resisters would like that honorable title bestowed on them. The recruiting leaflets the American military says were found here called for Iraqis to join them on a "jihad," or holy war, against the Americans — prompting a large United States military raid on the town this week.

But the Americans increasingly use a different word: "fedayeen."

In Iraq, the fedayeen were Sadddam Hussein's dark-uniformed storm-troopers, who, unbroken after the American-led alliance invaded Iraq last spring, appear to be among the most potent force behind the attacks on Americans and their allies here, American officials say.

Many Iraqis also consider the resisters fedayeen, even those Iraqis who strongly oppose the American occupation here, and worry that Mr. Hussein would return if the resisters win.

"If it were not for Saddam, I think more people would have joined already," said Kashid Ahmad Saleh, 48, a farmer here who is deeply angry at the American presence.

It was hard to pin down any single motive for the fighter here, who said he served in the Iraqi Army for six years, ending in 1998, and who gave the nickname "Fighter for the Sake of God." In compact and articulate answers, the man seemed a fanatic neither for God nor for Mr. Hussein.

"We are not fighting for Saddam," he said. "We are fighting for freedom and because the Americans are Jews. The Governing Council," he said, referring to the body of Iraqis appointed by the Americans, "is a bunch of looters and criminals and mercenaries. We cannot expect that stability in this country will ever come from them."

"The principle is based on religion and tribal loyalties," he added. "The religious principle is that we cannot accept to live with infidels. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be on him, said, `Hit the infidels wherever you find them.' We are also a tribal people. We cannot allow strangers to rule over us."

But much as he protested that Mr. Hussein was not the reason for fighting, he nonetheless said that "Saddam never did any bad things."

Then he defended two of the actions Mr. Hussein is often blamed for here in Iraq and abroad: "The Kurds deserved all that happened to them because they are traitors and criminals. Kuwait deserved what it got because it stole our oil."

In 1990, Mr. Hussein invaded Kuwait, prompting an American-led invasion the next year that pulled back, at the last moment, from toppling him from power.

In the 1980's, Mr. Hussein, an Arab, waged war against the Kurds of the north, removing many from their land in favor of his fellow Arabs. A fear of reprisals from the Kurds now empowered by the American victory — a fear echoed in this Sunni Arab town — seemed yet another reason this fighter, a Sunni Arab, has chosen to fight.

So far, he said, 10 of his comrades have been killed, and at the cemetery he knelt down to pay his respects at the flag-covered graves of two of those killed Aug. 30.

Major Vincent cited the Aug. 30 attack, in which he said two American soldiers were wounded, as the "perfect" example of the resistance's weakness.

"If they were truly winning the struggle, they wouldn't be scared to operate in the day, they wouldn't attack innocent aid organizations and Iraqi citizens, but would have the courage to face the U.S. Army directly, which they don't, because when they do, they die," Major Vincent said in an e-mail message on Thursday.

The man said the insurgents' overall strategy was just what American commanders say it is: To kill so many soldiers that America has no political choice but to leave Iraq. The recent American decision to speed up civilian control to Iraqis, he said, was one indication their strategy is working — an assertion Major Vincent and other Americans strongly reject.

"They are beginning to be defeated," the man said. "I want my message to reach the world. We will stop killing Americans if they withdraw. As we are precious to our families, American soldiers are precious to their families."

Attack on Police Station

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 4 (Reuters) — Rocket-propelled grenades were fired at a police station in the town of Ramadi, 68 miles west of Baghdad on Thursday. Six people were wounded as officers gathered to receive their monthly salaries.

Last month, 17 policemen were killed in twin bomb blasts north of Baghdad as insurgents stepped up actions against security forces seen to be cooperating with the Americans.

Also on Thursday, an American armored personnel carrier erupted in flames after hitting a roadside mine in Baghdad. American forces said no one was hurt.