(LA Times, 8 October 2003)
Baghdad (LA Times) "Commander A," a hawk-nosed, stubble-bearded former Iraqi intelligence officer who says he leads anti-American guerrillas in this area, sat in a car on a deserted country road screened by seven-foot reeds Monday and laid out his vision for driving U.S. forces out of Iraq.
Slowly, he said, the "resistance" has been building its strength, accumulating stores of weapons and collecting money from residents. Former supporters of Saddam Hussein and observant Muslims alike are rallying to the cause, he asserted. Thousands are willing to die to evict U.S. forces from the country, and attacks are now being centrally coordinated, he said.
"The American Army will feel that Vietnam was just a playground by comparison," the self-proclaimed leader of Serayeh al Jihad the "Companies of Jihad" said. At one point his deputy flinched when two U.S. helicopters passed overhead.
The man who gave his name as Commander A and the deputy who called himself Commander B agreed to meet with an American journalist and discuss their activities, offering a rare glimpse of what may be the thinking behind the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq.
The clandestine meeting was brokered by an Iraqi journalist from Fallouja who has covered the resistance for Arab television networks and worked in the Hussein-era Information Ministry. Although the two reputed resistance fighters were boastful and prone to exaggerated assertions of their effectiveness, their knowledge of recent operations, their wariness and their connections to Hussein's intelligence service lent some credence to their claims.
They said that the guerrillas are preparing to expand beyond the so-called "Sunni triangle"; that their group aims to abduct U.S. servicemen and give them to Osama bin Laden to barter for the Al Qaeda prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and that they are starting to develop into a full-fledged underground army that could take over as soon as they drive U.S. forces from Iraq.
In line with the U.S. assessments that the resistance is mainly made up of former regime loyalists, both men were security officers under the Baathist government and said they want to restore Hussein to power.
At the same time, they said, they have now embraced the call for a holy war against the United States espoused by groups such as Al Qaeda, and they also consider themselves fighting for Islam as well as for their country and Hussein. "And our symbol will be the virtuous sheik, Osama bin Laden," Commander A declared.
The Iraqi journalist who brokered the meeting and whose sympathies lie with the resistance said the two men led a cell of about 25 fighters that had been attacking the U.S. Army with roadside bombs and ambushes.
Although U.S. officials have played down the military significance of the guerrilla activity, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, acknowledged last week that attacks are becoming more frequent and are showing greater sophistication.
U.S. intelligence sees little evidence that the disparate opposition forces are coalescing around a common Islamist agenda or leadership structure, but officials do not rule out the possibility of some limited coordination.
"There may be limited cooperation in some instances in terms of carrying out attacks, although there certainly isn't definitive evidence pointing in that direction," a U.S. official said Monday in Washington. "They do have some ideological differences. But one of the reasons that would cause them to cooperate to some extent is mutual hatred of the United States and interest in trying to get the U.S. out of Iraq."
Since the war began March 20, 320 Americans have died and about 1,300 have been wounded. More than 80 combat deaths have occurred since President Bush declared major combat over May 1, mostly through roadside bombings and grenade and small-arms attacks.
Fallouja has been one of the main centers of the insurgency that began to emerge in late May. Attacks in and around the city west of Baghdad recently have been occurring about 20 times a day, the U.S. military says.
On the highway from Baghdad to Fallouja on Monday morning, U.S. troops were diverting traffic briefly onto an overpass. "Bomb," a U.S. soldier called out in explanation as cars slowed down.
Both reputed guerrilla fighters, who did not give their ages but appeared to be in their 40s, presented themselves as major figures in the fighting in the Fallouja area. Their activities include recruiting and directing fighters, taking part in "operations" that have killed Americans and coordinating with fighters in other areas, they said.
Both had worked before the war for the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the Mukhabarat, and said they regarded the guerrilla war as the continuation of the war begun in March.
In a possible reflection of self-delusion on the part of the guerrillas, they denied that the United States has captured most of the 55 Baathist leaders listed in the U.S. military's deck of most-wanted Iraqis, or that it had killed Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusai. And in an allegation that appears to have no basis in reality, they asserted that the United States is vastly underreporting military deaths in Iraq.
"Why don't they convey the reality to the American people, how many soldiers are killed every day?" Commander A asked. "I challenge them.... They say only 1% of the reality."
The contact began with a rendezvous outside the principal mosque in Fallouja, then moved to a deserted stretch of road west of the city, and, when U.S. military vehicles were spotted in the distance, shifted again to the empty country road on Fallouja's southwestern outskirts. The hood of their car was raised so that it would look to passersby that the vehicle had broken down and was being repaired.
Despite their bravura, the two dressed in simple white robes and not revealing any weapons seemed extremely nervous; one fingered translucent red worry beads throughout the discussion. They took precautions to avoid being followed, and hesitated to go to any house in Fallouja for fear they could be traced.
Defending His Actions
Commander A said the reason for the guerrilla activity was plain from the current circumstances of Iraq. "We believe that there should be resistance to defend our homes and the dignity of our country," he said. "We don't accept the label of terrorists. If I am defending my home and the dignity of my country and people, how can I be called a terrorist?"
He complained that U.S. forces degrade Iraqis by searching homes, making residents get on the ground at checkpoints and, when taking them into custody, placing plastic bags over their heads. He underscored the tribal nature of Iraqi society and a tradition of revenge.
"We have our own traditions and customs.... When someone is harmed or beaten or killed from my tribe, I will respond to that," he said. "There will be a feud.
"For the sake of God and for liberating Iraq from these treacherous occupiers led by Bush and his dog Blair, motivated by Zionism, we will retaliate for every single Iraqi and Muslim, and not only those in this area." Among the guerrillas' immediate targets, the commander said, were the members of the Iraqi Governing Council. "Our advice to them is to leave the country as soon as possible," he said.
He denied that their group was behind the assassination last month of Iraqi Governing Council member Aqila Hashimi, who was ambushed leaving her home and died five days later. He also denied involvement in the bombing in Najaf that killed esteemed Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, and the truck bombing of the United Nations that killed chief envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. Baathist loyalists had been identified as the most likely suspects by U.S. investigators.
Commander A asserted that the guerrilla activities including roadside bombings, ambushes and the shelling of U.S. bases in the area are inspired but not personally directed by Hussein. The attacks, he said, are being coordinated by what he called an "Islamic command."
"The instruction for us is to move outside [this] province.... In the near future, God willing, it will be a hell for them everyplace," he said. "The center of command is Baghdad itself. This spark started from Fallouja, this city of mosques. But now it has turned into an Islamic flare."
It seems questionable that the guerrilla activity could be extended beyond the Sunni tribal areas in the triangle between Ramadi, Baghdad and Tikrit.
Ethnic Kurds in the north and the Shiite majority in the south largely abhor Hussein and fear the Sunni Muslim minority, which was privileged under Hussein.
The Shiites especially have kept anti-Americanism in check at the behest of their religious leaders, who reason that the Shiites would be the main victims of a Baathist resurgence.
The men said the fighters under their command have been undertaking as many as six or seven operations a day around Fallouja.
With the approaching Muslim holy month of Ramadan, operations would increase, Commander A said, because it is an especially propitious time to die. "For us, death is martyrdom.... They [the fighters] are as eager to die as others are to live."
The interview ended when the two men and the Iraqi journalist got out of the car in the middle of a traffic jam in Fallouja, near a wall with several lines of pro-Hussein graffiti, and melted away into the crowd. -- Los Angeles Times