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By Nir Rosen, with the US 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment
in Iraq

The locals

AL-QAIM, western Iraq - Ayman Aftam, a portly young
customs office manager on the Iraqi al-Huseiba border
with Syria, owes his position and salary to the
American soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment
(ACR) who took control of the western region of Iraq
and re-established a customs service, in addition to

He explains that World Food Program rations are
smuggled from Iraq and sold in Syrian markets. Cooking
oil, sold at 1,500 dinars (less than US$1) for five
liters in Iraq, costs the equivalent of 6,000 dinars
in Syria. Smuggling weapons from Iraq to Syria is also
common. "Everything is so cheap here," he says.
"Rocket-propelled grenade [RPG] launchers, grenades
which cost about 2,000 dinars, even the engines from
abandoned Iraqi fighter planes. Syrian traders load
their trucks full of weapons from the local arms
markets to take back." Iraqis smuggle benzene out of
the country into Syria by building large tanks beneath
their cars and raising the chassis.

Aftam, 26, who studied law at Baghdad University, saw
hundreds of foreign mujahideen, or holy fighters,
enter Iraq through the al-Qaim crossing before the
war. "We welcomed them because they were here to
defend our country," he says. As for the Americans,
"We don't welcome them. They are occupying forces. We
haven't seen anything good from them, only an
occupation." He conceals his resentment from the
American soldiers he cooperates with, but in Arabic he
demands, "Why do they come with their Bradleys in
front of our houses, and put their boots on our
people's heads? Why don't they wave back when our
children wave to them? They just keep their guns
pointed at us." Aftam also refers to the many innocent
people he claims the Americans have killed, including
a man who drove up to their checkpoint but did not
understand the instructions and was shot.
Ayman maintains, like most Iraqis, that "the fighters
are not Saddam [Hussein] loyalists - those were killed
in the war. There are only very few mujahideen here.
We don't want mujahideen here. We accepted them when
they were defending Iraq; now Saddam is gone. We gave
the Americans an opportunity to help Iraq. The people
attacking are just normal Iraqis angry at Americans."

"They hate us," soldiers often say about the Iraqis
they believe they liberated. In the town of Huseiba,
25 kilometers from the 3rd ACR's Tiger Base, it is not
viewed as a liberation. "Any night we go there we get
shot at," says Captain Chris Alfeiri. Huseiba's
150,000 residents live comfortable lives, benefiting
from a thriving centuries-old smuggling route as well
as the normal trade of a border town. Large mansions
owned by successful smugglers and tribal leaders sit
on the fertile river banks.

Huseiba's market street is crowded with stalls selling
vegetables, cows, radios and, more discreetly, AK-47
assault rifles, grenades and RPGs, Russian grenade
launchers. Seated outside a cafe by the Great Mosque
of al-Qaim, one young man who works as a trader is
willing to admit "the American occupation is better
than the old regime". His friend disagrees. "This is
an occupation. They don't respect civilians, they
laugh at us and insult us."

The man answers: "It's true that the Americans give us
more freedom, but they don't respect us, searching our
houses and treating us improperly." The owner of the
cafe interjects angrily, "We have no dignity now
because of American soldiers. We are very angry that
American soldiers don't respect civilians. Now we are
all mujahideen. Any man who can't fight will give his
money to fighters. Even Saddam was better to us and
gave us more respect." A passer-by agrees: "It's not
freedom, it's an occupation."

Sheikh Mudhafar Abdel Wahab Alani can be heard giving
a sermon to his congregation of 1,200 devout from the
city's biggest mosque. The 40-year-old religious
leader berates his audience for what he says is their
sinful behavior since the foreigners occupied their
country. Loudspeakers atop the mosque make his furious
opprobrium audible throughout the city. As he
completes his khutba , or sermon, and the noon prayer
ends, he emerges wearing a white robe and white
turban, a thick black beard on his reddish brown face
and an aquiline nose defining his distinguished
features. He walks swiftly past the departing devout,
smiling, greeting passers-by warmly and wishing
everyone peace and God's blessings, and he is happy to
share his views with a stranger.

"We reject this occupation, as I said in many of my
sermons," he begins. "No country would accept an
occupation. We have lost our dignity." Of the
Americans he says, "Until now we have not seen
anything ... except killing, searches and curfews.
There is a reaction for every action. If you are
choking me, I will also choke you. We have a
resistance just like the Palestinians, Chechens and
Afghans." When asked whether the Americans should
leave soon, he snaps, "They should leave today." The
Americans have done nothing to improve life, he said,
so "how could it get any worse? It has never been so

Sheikh Mudhafar says one word explains the attacks
against American soldiers, intikam , or "revenge".
"Revenge is a common tradition in Iraq," he says. "It
was the same between Iraqis before the Americans
arrived. The attacks are the reaction to the
Americans. Revenge for their actions." He rejects US
claims that there is no popular support for the Iraqi
resistance. "I don't think there is al-Qaeda in Iraq,
and Saddam's supporters are too cowardly to attack the
Americans." He is not opposed to the anti-American
attacks. "I do not tell my people not to attack the

In the nearby town of Ubeidi, 20km from Huseiba,
Sheikh Mudhafar's close friend Sheikh Kamal Shafiq
Ali, leader of the Mustafa mosque and its congregation
of 1,000, has completed his sermon as well. The jovial
sheikh also dons a white robe, as well as a white cap,
and his clipped white beard makes him look older than
his 45 years. Sheikh Kamal explains that there are
three attitudes to the US presence. "Most people don't
care if the US or Saddam is in place. Some people are
with the occupation because they want to achieve
freedom, and some, very few, are against the

Sheikh Kamal says Iraq's religious leaders "said we
have to wait" and give the Americans a chance to
fulfill their promises before attacking them. "No
country wants an occupation," he says. "The Koran says
that Allah promised the believers that infidels will
never rule them. Of course it is an occupation, it is
in the UN resolution that it is an occupation. But if
Saddam doesn't return and the Americans keep their
promises, it is a liberation."

Sheikh Kamal certainly prefers American soldiers to
fellow Muslim or Arab soldiers, saying that "Americans
are more kind than Arab or Muslim soldiers would be".
Of course, even Sheikh Kamal is not extending his
country's hospitality indefinitely. "A government must
be established, security must be provided, there have
to be elections and a constitution, and after they
finish all that, they have to get out, as they
promised," he admonishes. He will be hard pressed to
find any American who wants to stay.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact for
information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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