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[casi] Iraqi fighters reject label of terrorist

      Posted on Sun, Sep. 14, 2003

      Iraqi fighters reject label of terrorist
      Knight Ridder exclusive: Interview with guerrillas
      Knight Ridder Newspapers

                  At 19, Abu Mohammed, a guerrilla fighter, oversees a cell
of young Iraqis who scout the highways around Baghdad for passing U.S.
convoys to attack. MANDI WRIGHT, Detroit Free Press

      BAQUBA, Iraq - A mournful voice singing of dreary days and
disappointing harvests drifted across a canal and onto the hidden grounds
where Abu Abdullah teaches his recruits to kill.

      Faded Iraqi army uniforms dried on pomegranate trees, and combat boots
lined a dirt path leading into the camp. Young Iraqis picked ripe grapes and
offered them to visitors. And waited for orders to attack another American

      From this farm hidden among tangled grapevines and tall date palms an
hour north of Baghdad, guerrilla fighters, both Iraqis and foreigners, have
set out on some of the raids that have killed 70 U.S. soldiers in the past
four months. The farmer's song is a code from a lookout, to assure
commanders that passing boaters can't see the band of guerrillas preparing
for their next attack on American soldiers.

      The men here, armed with grenades and rifles, seem a ludicrous match
for U.S. forces, whose superior weaponry is evident at every checkpoint in
the country.

      But two leaders of guerrilla cells told a Knight Ridder reporter and
photographer in separate interviews that they would fight until the last
vestige of the American presence in Iraq is gone. Their fate, one said, is
"victory or martyrdom."

      The interviews, conducted nine days apart in late August and early
September, were the most extensive to date granted by the fighters who are
killing Americans, and the visit to the camp was the first by journalists
covering the war here.

      The first interview, with an Iraqi who identified himself as Abu
Mohammed, took place in an abandoned building in Mansour, Baghdad's most
exclusive neighborhood. The second, with a Jordanian who called himself Abu
Abdullah, was at the encampment near Baquba.

      The two cell leaders said their fighters primarily were former Iraqi
army officers and young Iraqis who had joined because they were angry over
the deaths or arrests of family members during U.S. raids in the hunt for
Saddam Hussein and his supporters.

      The group also shelters remnants of a non-Iraqi Arab unit of Saddam's
elite Fedayeen militia force as well as foreigners who slipped across the
country's long and porous borders to battle American troops, they said. Abu
Abdullah, who directs the camp near Baquba, said he came to Iraq shortly
before the United States invaded it last spring.

      The anti-American forces appear to be more organized than some U.S.
intelligence and military officials thought. Cells receive orders and
intelligence from Diyala, which lies within the northern "Sunni Triangle" of
danger. According to the fighters, the Diyala leadership oversees about 100
guerrillas, including an all-women's unit, and is backed by private
donations as well as Syrian funding, according to the two cell leaders. Both
said they had been told by superiors not to contact members of other cells
for fear of infiltrators.

      Abu Mohammed seemed confident that Saddam is directing at least some
of the activity. He said he'd heard that leaders many levels above him had
met recently with the fallen Iraqi leader.

      Still, he said, the dictator has no chance of returning to power
because of the shame of losing Baghdad and because of relatives who turned
in his sons and other key figures for rewards.

      "We love Saddam Hussein for one thing - he has a big mind," Abu
Mohammed said. "He knows how to think and how to plan. He made our hearts as
strong as steel."

      Knight Ridder sought the interviews through Iraqi acquaintances, who
spent weeks contacting other acquaintances, searching for someone with
inroads to the group. The interviews themselves were arranged through an
intermediary, who accompanied a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer to
both, but disappeared without explanation the day an aborted third meeting
was to have taken place in a new location.

      In neither instance did the fighters attempt to prevent the
journalists, an accompanying translator or their driver from seeing the
route along which they were taken. But during the trip to the camp, the
journalists' satellite telephones were confiscated and turned off, out of
concern, the intermediary said, that U.S. forces would trace the phones'
signals to pinpoint the camp's location.

      Both cell leaders said they were willing to talk because they didn't
want the story of what was going on in Iraq to be told only from the
American military's standpoint. Abu Abdullah said he wanted to tell people
he didn't consider himself a terrorist, but the enemy of "U.S. imperialism."

      American officials have said they know little of the exact makeup of
the Iraqi fighters. They have linked the guerrillas both to Saddam's Baath
Party and to foreigners linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist

      The cell leaders themselves said they were guided by a blend of
Islamist teachings and pan-Arab nationalism. Both spoke disdainfully of
"Wahabbis," as hard-line Sunni Muslim followers are called. Abu Mohammed
said there was no contact with members of al Qaida at his level; Abu
Abdullah broke off the interview before the question could be asked. But he
said his fighters were too valuable to participate in suicide missions, a
hallmark of al Qaida, and he rejected the label of terrorist.

      "Can you describe a man who defends his country as a terrorist?" asked
Abu Abdullah, who said he was 31. "Iraq is the land of prophets and the
birthplace of civilization. We will fight until we shed the last drop of our
blood for this country."

      It is impossible to verify the claims of the two men. But Abu Mohammed
described two fatal ambushes of U.S. convoys that matched times, dates and
locations of recent incidents recorded in American military accounts. And an
explosion nearby lent credibility to Abu Abdullah's claims after he
hurriedly broke off an interview, saying his men had been ordered to ambush
a U.S. convoy that had moved within range. A security report by
international agencies later listed an attack on U.S. troops at about the
same time and place as the explosion. One American soldier was reported

      Abu Mohammed, who said he was 19, called the American victory in April
a humiliating defeat for his family, which has roots in Saddam's hometown of
Tikrit and includes several officers in the former army.

      A friend of Abu Mohammed's said the young man had an uncle among the
U.S.-led coalition's 55 most-wanted figures from the former regime, though
he declined to divulge the uncle's name or whether he is still missing.

      Family connections to the Baath Party brought raids and arrests of
several relatives, Abu Mohammed said. In June, a cousin confided that he had
joined the anti-American forces. Abu Mohammed said he accepted his cousin's
invitation to watch an attack and was seduced instantly by the thrill of

      Nearly three months later, his loyalty and family reputation had
earned him a position as the leader of a 20-member cell that scouts the
highways in and around Baghdad for passing American convoys, which he said
made easy targets for rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs.

      Superiors sent Abu Mohammed to meet with Knight Ridder one evening in
late August to provide basic information on the Diyala umbrella group and to
vet the journalists before a second meeting.

      A middleman named Ahmed accompanied a reporter and photographer to the
Mansour building. Ahmed paid a child standing outside a handful of Iraqi
dinars, presumably to act as a lookout during the hour-long interview. Ahmed
then led the way to a dim, first-floor office where Abu Mohammed sat behind
a desk, wearing a tightly wrapped head scarf that revealed only his eyes.

      His thin frame slumped under the weight of a Kalashnikov and a
military-style vest packed with hand grenades and ammunition. His hands
shook, and he explained that he was nervous because U.S. raids were growing
closer to the Diyala leadership. Raids in recent weeks had resulted in the
arrest of one member, he said, and two others had narrowly escaped capture.

      Fear of informants restricts recruiting to family members, close
neighborhood friends and military buddies, he said.

      "We are Islamist in that we are protecting our religion. We are
nationalist in that we are protecting our country," Abu Mohammed said. "We
don't care about our lives. We care about the lives of our fellow Iraqis."

      Abu Mohammed's cell relies on the Baghdad branch for information on
convoy routes, checkpoints with the least security and areas with high
American soldier traffic. Baghdad leaders arrange each attack and sometimes
send members afterward to stand at the scene posing as onlookers to count
casualties. A report then goes to the Diyala leaders, Abu Mohammed said.

      One attack, he said, was scrapped at the last minute because a van
carrying an Iraqi family pulled next to the targeted convoy and could have
been hit by mistake. Typically, however, most attacks are carried out, and
Iraqis who happen to be around are "sacrificed," he said.

      The day before an Aug. 12 attack near Taji, home to a U.S. military
base just north of Baghdad, Abu Mohammed said, he and six other men scouted
the area, plotting the operation and mapping the quickest escape routes.
They planned to have two men on an overpass fire a rocket-propelled grenade
launcher and other weapons. Two others, one at each end of the overpass,
would serve as lookouts, another as the getaway driver and two more would
guard alternate escape routes farther from the scene. Abu Mohammed said he
was one of the latter two.

      The day of the attack, one member recited protective verses from the
Quran and the others repeated each line in unison. They drove to the site,
took their positions and waited for the convoy, which the Baghdad cell told
them would be carrying an important American military figure.

      At about 6 p.m., Abu Mohammed said, they fired on the convoy and
escaped as planned. "I don't know how many were injured," he said. "I saw
two soldiers who looked dead."

      On Aug. 13, the U.S. military announced that one 4th Infantry Division
soldier had been killed and two others had been wounded around 6:15 p.m. the
previous day when their convoy was attacked "in the vicinity of al Taji."
Though the records match Abu Mohammed's account, there's no way to guarantee
that the attack was the one he described.

      Even if the U.S.-led military coalition leaves Iraq, Abu Mohammed
said, his group will turn to the U.S.-appointed Governing Council as a new
target. The men harbor particular disdain for Ahmad Chalabi, the
controversial Iraqi exile who helped spur the war with information he gave
to key players in the Bush administration and to American newspaper
reporters. Abu Mohammed said no exile would be safe as president; his group
would accept only an Iraqi leader who "suffered like us, who was with the
people" during wars and sanctions.

      "I promise you," he said. "The first day Chalabi is president, we will
bomb his house no matter who is inside."

      Nine days passed before Knight Ridder was offered a second meeting,
this time with a higher-ranking cell leader. The middleman from the first
meeting and an unidentified member of the Baghdad cell took the same
reporter and photographer down a maze of country roads an hour north of
Baghdad. At one point, the car traveled directly behind an American convoy,
stirring laughter and shrugs from the middleman and the Baghdad cell member.

      The car stopped outside a remote, overgrown farm surrounded by a high
wall. The group entered through a padlocked side door and the men warned of
snakes as they walked down a dirt path strewn with military boots, charred
metal parts and tubs of freshly picked dates from the tall palm trees that
cast shadows over the campgrounds. Stockpiles of canned food could be seen
from the path.

      At the end of the trail, a narrow canal sparkled in the afternoon
sunlight. The escort from the Baghdad cell said the camp gave him a feeling
of "brotherhood," with members swimming together in the canal or racing to
pick the ripest grapes. The man, who looked to be in his early 30s, offered
the visitors seats on a neglected patio about 20 feet from the banks of the

      After a 20-minute wait, noise from the path signaled the arrival of
Abu Abdullah and three other men, one of whom sported a Saddam Fedayeen
logo - a winged heart - tattooed on his hand. Abu Abdullah, who wore track
pants and a T-shirt, had covered his face with a black-and-white scarf,
though the other men weren't disguised.

      He said he left Jordan for Iraq just before the war, when volunteers
from neighboring Arab countries lined up at the borders to show their
willingness to help Iraqi soldiers. He was drawn not by religious beliefs,
he said, but by fear that war in Iraq would lead to Western rule of the
Middle East.

      He said he since had met like-minded Syrians, Egyptians and Afghans
from other cells.

      "I saw what the Zionists did to Palestine, how they destroyed
Palestinian homes," he said. "I told myself I could never let this happen to
another Arab country. The Americans are only coming to occupy Iraq, to drain
this land of its natural resources."

      At the camp, he continued, he trains recruits to operate heavy weapons
and small arms such as machine guns and hand grenades. He said the recruits,
who were increasing daily "from inside and outside Iraq," were quick
students because most already had military experience. The leader of the
anti-American network sometimes visits the camp to encourage new recruits to
fight with courage.

      The men are taught to seek only military targets, and to spare
civilian lives when possible. For this reason, he said, he condemns the car
bombs that killed dozens of innocents recently at the Jordanian Embassy, the
United Nations base in Baghdad and the Imam Ali shrine in the Shiite Muslim
holy city of Najaf. Abu Abdullah said he thought U.S. forces orchestrated
the Najaf bombing to divide Sunni and Shiite Muslims by assassinating
Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim, the leading Shiite cleric who died in the

      "Americans want to split us," he said. "Those heretical people want to
finish Islam, to kill our religion. But we know Muslims, and in our holy
book it says to fight together against those who threaten Islam. So, we will

      The promised hour-long interview ended after just 15 minutes, when
another member whispered something in his ear. Abu Abdullah apologized
profusely and excused himself. Information had arrived on a convoy that
would be an easy hit as long as the fighters acted immediately, he said.

      "This is from someone coming to tell us we have a mission now," Abu
Abdullah said. "We are ready to go and attack our target." He left, and the
visitors were led back to the car by Ahmed and the same escort from Baghdad.

      On the way back to the main road into Baquba, an explosion so powerful
it rattled the car was heard in the distance.

      The men in the front seat turned to each other and smiled.

      (Allam reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)


      The interviews for this story were conducted in clandestine meetings
in Baghdad and at a camp in a rural area north of the city. They provide a
chilling insight into a shadowy organization responsible for at least some
of the attacks that have killed 70 Americans since President Bush declared
major combat over on May 1. The story may disturb some readers who will
believe that American journalists should not talk with the enemy and that
American newspapers should not publish anything they say. But the story
provides important information to help the public understand something of
the nature of the enemy that U.S. troops are facing.

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