Inside the resistance

by Zaki Chehab (The Guardian, Monday October 13, 2003)

Popular anger is forging an alliance between diverse strands of Iraq's guerrilla movement

The suicide bomber who yesterday attacked the US-frequented Baghdad Hotel was the fourth member of the Iraqi resistance to kill themselves for the cause. The bombing came only three days after last week's suicide attack on a Baghdad police station that left at least eight people dead. From the meetings I have had with resistance fighters in different parts of Iraq, there is no doubt that there will be many more such attacks to come.

The use of suicide bombing in Iraq - the first announced target was the UN in August - signals a clear change of tactics by the growing resistance movement. The US-led coalition forces, frustrated by their inability to control the situation, blame foreign infiltrators for these attacks, emphasising the similarity between these new tactics and those of al-Qaida and other militant groups in the Middle East. Few seem to grasp the fact that Iraqis, who are well-trained militarily, have simply learned from others' experiences, and carried out the attacks themselves.

I first met Iraqi resistance fighters at a farm in the suburbs of Ramadi, north of Baghdad. It was several months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, and on that day the people of Ramadi were gathering at a mosque to grieve the death of a young Iraqi killed by US forces. The man - unarmed, and driving a civilian car - had failed to stop at a checkpoint. There had been no signs warning him or other drivers of the danger they were approaching. I was taken aback by the strength of the anger felt by the local people - such deaths (this young man was not the first to die at the checkpoint, nor the last) were clearly galvanising local people to fight back against the occupation forces.

After the funeral, with the dreaded 10pm curfew fast approaching, my new Iraqi companions invited me to go with them to a nearby place of safety. As we made the dangerous journey along the road from Ramadi to Baghdad - the site of daily attacks by the resistance and street gangs - the conversation turned to the nature of the Iraqi resistance movement. I was very keen to find out why it was spreading throughout Iraq so quickly, and what motivated its members. My companions - ordinary Iraqis - immediately offered to introduce me to the fighters they knew.

The fighters wore civilian clothes but their faces were covered, and they held a range of small arms and light weapons - AK-47s, RPG-7s to shoulder-mounted rocket propellers and hand grenades.

What struck me most, though, was their intense commitment to their cause: the liberation of Iraq from its current occupiers. These were no "Ba'athist remnants". On the contrary, they blamed Saddam Hussein for bringing the Americans into Iraq. They went so far as to say the capture of Saddam by allied forces would sever the links between Saddam and the resistance movement once and for all. They defined themselves as nationalists. One said: "We do not want to see our country occupied by forces clearly pursuing their own interests, rather than being poised to return Iraq to the Iraqis."

Later, I met members of a different strand of the resistance: Saddam Hussein loyalists in Tikrit. We were filming in the main street there when two young, well-built Iraqis approached us. While they were asking us who we were working for, a US convoy passed by and the two men shouted abuse at the American soldiers, threatening to turn Iraq into their graveyard.

Then they turned to us, boasting that they had attacked the Americans the night before at Saddam's palace in the town, and would carry out daily attacks until the Americans were driven out of the country. One of the two men introduced himself as Nabil, and declared that there was no support locally for the Americans, who would never be safe, even in their thousands.

These were not empty threats. I spent that night with an Iraqi family in the town. While sitting in the back garden, we witnessed eight explosions within minutes of each other. My host, a university professor, explained that they were mortar attacks targeting the US headquarters in Tikrit.

In Mosul and Falluja, the resistance groups are different again. Here, most identify themselves with Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Recently, there have been reports of meetings in the Jordanian capital between high-ranking members of Hamas and this section of the resistance, which has sought to learn from the experience of Hamas and its military wing, well-known for its suicide bomb attacks against Israeli targets.

This development was entirely predictable. When Mosul fell to American forces on April 11, terror and chaos spread over the city. The Pentagon promised that thousands of its soldiers would secure Mosul and prevent mass looting. I entered the city that day. By the time praying started, dozens of worshippers had gathered to hear one of Mosul's leading Sunni clerics calling for patience, but warning that if peace and security were not restored, then "the inhabitants of Mosul still have the means to resist, as this is not the promised liberation but an occupation. We will never accept Iraq becoming a second Palestine."

Iraq is a country which has faced more than 20 years of war, and more than a decade of sanctions. The motivations of each strand of Iraqi resistance vary: the loyalists are driven by the loss of power; the nationalists by the desire to establish independence and security; the Islamists by their dream of returning political Islam to the Iraqi nation. These aspirations may be incompatible, but the focus of each group now is to fight together against the common enemy of Iraq - the occupying forces.

In some areas at least, this common interest has a structural expression. In the back streets of Mosul, soon after the fall of the city, I came face to face with a group of armed men, shouting and firing shots in different directions. I asked who they were: some introduced themselves as former Ba'athists, others said they belonged to Islamist organisations. Though ideologically worlds apart, they explained that they all took their orders from the same committee in the city, which was headed by a group of religious leaders. I later found there were similar relationships in Falluja and Samarra.

The resolve and ferocity of the Iraqi resistance has been amplified by the blunders of the American soldiers in Iraq. Coalition commanders have dealt ineptly with ground operations, and neither the British nor the Americans have come up with a clear road map for the political reconstruction of Iraq that would enable Iraqis to rule themselves.

Random road checks and house-to-house searches, often based on inaccurate information, make a bad situation worse. Culturally inappropriate behaviour - male soldiers body-searching women, for example - and collective punishments have further alienated the population and helped entrench popular support for resistance.

Given the growing number of Iraqis joining the resistance, there is a strong need for Washington and London to revise their military and political plans for post-conflict Iraq. The occupation forces are in a fragile position. If they strengthen their military presence in the face of increasing resistance, they will only alienate Iraqis yet further from their attempts to redraw the political future of Iraq - and the resistance will continue to spread. Unless there is an early withdrawal, the currently sporadic attacks in the Shia-dominated south can be expected to mushroom.

Britain and the US are currently setting the stage for a new phase of Iraqi resistance. Its members are learning fast from the experience of the region, and are already adopting new tactics. The latest of these is suicide bombing - a weapon which even the strongest counter-terrorism forces struggle to cope with.

· Zaki Chehab is the political editor of the Arabic TV station al-Hayat-LBC, and was the first journalist to broadcast an interview with members of the Iraqi resistance

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