Resistance fighters in Iraq talk strategy, motivation

September 13, 2003

Editor's note: The Free Press is publishing an account of rare interviews with enemies of the United States in Iraq because their words offer insight into the violence that has killed roughly 70 U.S. troops in the past four months.

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

Faded Iraqi army uniforms dried on pomegranate trees, and combat boots lined a dirt path to the camp. Young Iraqis picked grapes and offered them to visitors. And they waited for orders to attack another U.S. military convoy.

From this farm among tangled grapevines and tall date palms near Baquba, an hour north of Baghdad, Iraqi and foreign fighters have set out on some of the raids that have led to the deaths of U.S. troops.

The farmer's song is a code from a lookout.

It assures commanders that passing boaters can't see the band of guerrillas preparing for their next attack.

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

Two leaders of these fighters told a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer in separate interviews that they would fight until the U.S. military is gone from Iraq. Their fate, one said, is "victory or martyrdom."

The interviews were conducted nine days apart in late August and early September.

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

The two leaders said their fighters primarily were former army officers and young Iraqis who had joined in anger over the deaths or arrests of family members during U.S. raids in the hunt for ousted President Saddam Hussein.

The group also shelters remnants of a non-Iraqi Arab unit of Saddam's Fedayeen militia force as well as foreigners who slipped into Iraq to battle U.S. troops, they said. Abu Abdullah, 31, who directs the camp near Baquba, said he came to Iraq shortly before the war began in March.

Their orders and intelligence come from Diyala, a city within the Sunni triangle, an area north and west of Baghdad that is thought to be a stronghold for Hussein loyalists.

The Diyala leadership oversees about 100 fighters, including an all-female unit, and is backed by private donations as well as Syrian funding, according to the two leaders. Both leaders said they had been told by superiors not to contact members of other cells for fear of infiltrators.

Hussein inspired

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

But Abu Mohammed said Hussein has no chance of returning to power because of the shame of losing Baghdad.

"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."

The interviews were arranged through an intermediary, who accompanied a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer but disappeared without explanation the day a third meeting was to have taken place. The meeting fell through.

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 being 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 try to trace the phone signals.

Both 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 U.S. military's standpoint. Abu Abdullah said he wanted to tell people he didn't consider himself a terrorist, but an enemy of "U.S. imperialism."

Martyrs' motivation

The cell leaders say they are guided by a blend of Islamist teachings and pan-Arab nationalism. Abu Mohammed said there was no contact with members of Al Qaeda 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 and rejected the label of terrorist.

It is impossible to verify the claims of the two men interviewed. But Abu Mohammed described two fatal ambushes of U.S. convoys that matched the times, dates and locations as recorded in U.S. 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 soldier was reported injured.

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

During an interview, 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 semiautomatic rifle and a military-style vest packed with hand grenades and ammunition. 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 limits 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."

Intelligence grid

Abu Mohammed's unit relies on units in Baghdad for information on convoy routes, checkpoints that have relatively little security and areas with high U.S. 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.

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 U.S. 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 know whether the attack was the same one described.

Nine days later, a meeting was arranged with Abu Abdullah at the remote farm an hour north of Baghdad.

Abu Abdullah, who wore track pants and a T-shirt, covered his face with a black-and-white scarf.

He said he left Jordan for Iraq just before the war, drawn not out of religious beliefs but from fear that the war in Iraq would lead to Western rule of the Middle East.

He said since then he had met like-minded Syrians, Egyptians and Afghans.

At the camp, he said, he trains recruits to use machine guns and hand grenades.

The men are taught to seek only military targets and to spare civilian lives whenever possible. He condemned 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 Najaf.

The promised hour-long interview ended after 15 minutes. Abu Abdullah apologized and excused himself. Information had arrived on a convoy that would be an easy hit as long as the fighters acted immediately, he said.