The making of an Iraqi guerrilla: one man's tale
One night at the end of June, a young Iraqi man goes out to ambush an American convoy near the central Iraqi town of Fallujah.
He is wearing his favorite blue tracksuit. He is a small guy, solid and compact, with cropped dark hair and a chin that juts out slightly. He likes tough sports, especially handball. He can stub out a cigarette on the calluses of his left palm. It will be his first time in combat.
Although he has trained only fleetingly for what he is about to do, he is not afraid. "If I die for a reason, that's a nice thing," he says later.
Since President Bush declared major hostilities in Iraq over on May 1, a rising tide of ambushes, explosions, and small-arms attacks has killed 60 Americans.
The man's motivations for attacking the convoy are simple: to resist the American "insult to Iraqi and Arab tradition."
His remarks, during a two-hour interview at a Baghdad hotel, convey a sense of betrayal and trampled dignity. "They might have helped, but they destroyed things," he says of the Americans in Iraq. "They provoked."
He mentions the "unfulfilled promises" of the Americans (to bring democracy, to make things better), their mistreatment of Iraqis (especially when male US soldiers encounter Iraqi women in raids or at checkpoints), their unwillingness to stop looting, help Iraqis in need, maintain stability. "Now nothing is under control," he says.
Beyond individual accounts, the origins of the anti-American guerrilla war are obscure. US officials and officers have long blamed the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. They have also begun speculating about the possibility that "foreign fighters" or even Al Qaeda are participating in the Iraqi resistance.
But the man in the blue tracksuit is no Baathist; he complains about the old regime's corruption and other failings. He cites his two years as an Army conscript. For enlisted men, he says, military service was like living in a jungle full of lions - the rapacious, bribe-soliciting senior officers. His career as a handball player stalled because he wouldn't or couldn't pay a bribe to get on the national team.
He does not deny that he is part of an armed group fighting the Americans. But he seems to know - or is able to say - very little about it. The group is nameless, he says, and so decentralized that he is not certain who is behind it. He says he doesn't think foreigners are involved, but he admits he might not know it if they were.
His experience is impossible to corroborate independently, but the details of his account offer some reassurance that it is genuine.
That night in June, the man and five like-minded Iraqis arrive separately at a prearranged spot along a country road. He has never met three of the others. The organization is divided into cells for the sake of security. Between them, they have three rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) launchers and two mortars. The men with the shoulder-fired RPGs spread out along the road, hiding in the scrub. The mortar men pull back to gain some distance on the road and calibrate how far they will have to lob their shells. This is their plan: The man wearing the tracksuit will hit the convoy's rear vehicle with an RPG. Then one of the others will do the same to the lead vehicle, boxing in the Americans and making them vulnerable to repeated strikes from RPGs and mortars. It will be a bloodbath.
At about 11 p.m., the US convoy rolls into view: Five Humvees and three or four Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
The man has seen a Humvee up close, thanks to the three days he spent in early June as an interpreter for a US military unit in Habaniya, not far from Fallujah. Although he studies English literature at university, his language skills are weak, so it is no surprise that he did not last long in this work. But he says he was the one who decided not to return to the American base. He applied for the job "so that I would be close to them and know about their vehicles and see whether [the Americans] have good intentions." They do not, he concluded. "American soldiers have a lot of hatred for the Iraqi people," he says.
At the base, he helped US soldiers question Iraqis who had come to tell the Americans about those organizing attacks. The man says he passed the names of these informers to his underground organization, but adds that he doesn't know whether any action was taken against them.
The man says the experience of being among the Americans turned him against them.
Crouching in the bushes by the side of the road, gripping the handle of the RPG launcher, the man in the blue tracksuit hesitates, unsure whether he can hit his target. He has only used the weapon twice before, at secret trainings conducted by his organization just four or five days earlier.
This is his moment. He fires.
The grenade shoots past the target and explodes against some rocks. The Americans don't stop their vehicles, but they begin firing their weapons.
The Iraqis abort the attack, fleeing separately into the darkness. The man says, two of them were wounded by US fire.
The man in the tracksuit is disappointed by the experience. He says he was not well trained. He has risked his life in the attack, and he has failed. He remains part of the underground group, but its leaders have not asked him to take part in another mission.
Later he hears that the Americans came to the scene the next day and interrogated everyone who lives in the area, looking for weapons and those who carried out the ambush. For these Iraqis, the attack only worsened the US occupation's imposition on their lives.
Failed missions such as these, he says, have caused his group to pause in their attacks. Perhaps the Americans, he says, "might fix something." In case they do not, the group is recruiting more members.