How Wahhabis fan Iraq insurgency
To his followers, Sheikh Tahma Aboud Khalif is a loving father of four; a poor and harmless Islamic ideologue whose only fault is his "temper."
But for the American soldiers who caught the sheikh red-handed attempting to ambush their convoy, early one June morning south of Baghdad, the sheikh is a Wahhabi terrorist - and deserves to be sent to Guantánamo Bay.
"We very literally dodged a bullet that day," says a US military intelligence officer, who asked not to be named. "That group has a lot of influence and conducts a lot of attacks, but they are not the only ones. When this is over, you will see that this was a hotbed."
Sheikh Tahma's case offers a rare window, say US officers and local clerics, into the way some adherents of the Wahhabi faith - a puritanical branch of Sunni Islam that calls for the expulsion of foreign infidels - figure in anti-US violence in Iraq.
Repressed during the era of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Wahhabis are finding a new voice among people distraught by the insecurity that has accompanied the US-led occupation, and the postwar failure to improve Iraqi lives. But the Sheikh's case is also an example of the way US forces are working with local clerics to defuse anger.
The result, in the case of Tahma, was a rare step beyond preaching anti-US rhetoric - common enough in both Iraq's Sunni and Shiite mosques - into the realm of taking action.
The sheikh and three accomplices, on the morning of June 14, hid a homemade roadside bomb made of two 122mm artillery shells in a bit of sacking, and then lay in wait for a US convoy to pass.
The bomb failed to go off, and US troops aboard the convoy spotted the four beside the wall of the building, holding antitank weapons and assault rifles. They gave chase, and three of the attackers disappeared into tall elephant grass.
But the sheikh was too slow. Cornered by US forces, he raised his weapon directly at them, and was tackled. The photograph taken during interrogation shows an intense, scuffed up middle-aged man with a thin moustache, a beard, and a head bandage.
US troops who dealt with Tahma during the failed attack and after, say they were shocked by the sheikh's anger that he was such a poor bombmaker.
"He called it a 'failed experiment,' I'll never forget that," says Lt. Col. David Haight, whose unit thwarted the attack. "I've never struck an Iraqi, but that really got to me."
This sheikh was no ordinary catch, however. He told his captors that he had some information, and led them to his own small, blue-domed, Salah al-Adin Mosque, in the palm-thick fertile plains beside the Tigris river.
A crowd gathered as the Americans and Iraqis working with them conducted a search. Inside the mosque, they found 1,500 assault rifle bullets.
In the compound and a nearby caretaker's compound, they found some 1,500 more rounds of ammunition, smoke and illumination flares, German detonation devices used for Claymore mines, and two switch timer devices in a plastic bag.
The information gleaned from the sheikh illustrated for these US units that violent resistance was not limited to pro-Saddam loyalists - but included Sunni religious elements also.
"He led us down the Wahhabi path," says Colonel Haight. "He got our foot in the door, into anti-Coalition attacks" Still, a spike in attacks the past month and a half around the area of this "cell" has yielded 12 bombs known here as "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, and grenade attacks.
At the mosque on that June morning, there was local anger at the "humiliation," Iraqis say, of seeing Tahma handcuffed and looking roughed up. Even after the sheikh described the role he played in the failed attack - three separate times, as requested by the Americans - there were still disbelieving stares.
"They apprehended our idol ... our teacher who tells us what is right and what is wrong," recalls Maktouf Aurabi, the interim caretaker of the mosque, who wears thick eyeglasses, and is missing several teeth. "We can't do anything at the moment for him. It was like he died in front of us."
"Just imagine a church, and they take the bishop away," adds Abdul Karim Jawad, also sitting in the sweltering shade of the mosque. "People like him a lot, and when the [postwar] looting started, he got on the microphone and told people it is not permitted. Looters even shot bullets at the mosque."
But could he take his anti-US rhetoric to the front line, and conduct an attack? "Only God knows," says Mr. Jawad. "He's nervous. He has a temper."
That temper didn't show itself to the Americans who first began to interrogate the sheikh. "He realized he was caught red-handed, so he did not resist at all," says the intelligence officer, who conducted several hours of initial interrogations. "In his mind, he was convinced he was justified in his mission. He was very upset he failed in his mission.
"He accepted his fate, that he was a martyr now," says the officer. He was allowed to change clothes, before being taken away. "He said goodbye to his family. They kissed him."
The sheikh's explanation, as told by the intelligence officer, matches the type of anti-infidel mind-set that prevails among Wahhabis in much of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and across Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. It is also a match for the rejectionist thinking of Al Qaeda.
Tahma made the attack "because of Western ideals," says the intelligence officer. "He said: 'You are bringing Western culture and satellite images into our society. You brought nude magazines and distributed them.'
Coming to terms with such Wahhabi militancy has not been easy for other local religious leaders, who initiated fortnightly meetings with American units more than two months ago to help dispel mutual misperceptions.
"[The Americans] had the idea that all Sunnis are against them ... and there were many things [about them] we didn't have a clue about, so these meetings help us fight many rumors," says Sheikh Emad, who asked for the meetings.
"Most of these [Wahhabis] are not dangerous to the coalition," says Emad, adding that Tahma's attempted attack is a special case. "No one hates coalition forces because they took him.... He tried to fire on coalition forces, so people don't talk about that a lot.
"But if someone only talks against the coalition and are arrested, that causes a problem for us," Emad adds. "It is Iraqi nature, they like a sheikh who talks against the government and authority."
Indeed, Tahma was held for 45 days by Saddam Hussein's security apparatus 1-1/2 years ago, his followers say. But finding that balance is not easy for US forces tasked with keeping the peace - and keeping safe.
"One of the things that they do not understand, is that we want them to have free speech, but if they preach 'kill Americans,' they are going to end up in jail," says Capt. Edward Jackson, a chaplain of the 2-235 Air Infantry Regiment, who convenes the meetings in a local technical college.
But there are still resentments, fueled, these sheikhs say, by routine heavy-handed US behavior during raids, or inadvertently arresting innocent Iraqis, while true perpetrators get away.
"This is very difficult, because we can't understand the idea of occupation," says another sheikh, in pale-blue robes, who asked not to be named. "It makes it harder between the US and the people.... Sometimes it can create fighters among the citizens."
Ensuring that that happens may have been a message hidden in the letter that Tahma sent to the mosque, using a Red Cross facility plainly marked "Family and or private news only," dated June 25, just 11 days after his arrest.
Addressed to the bespectacled Mr. Aurabi, it called on Tahma's son to memorize the Koran, and to "obey his mother."
But the one-page letter - shown to the Monitor by Aurabi - also calls for upkeep of the mosque, "clearing the garden, and guarding the house."
US officers say they suspect that the garden reference was a hidden message, though the meaning remains unclear. Aurabi says he is against the anti-US attacks, but says Americans "receive shots and ambushes everywhere in this area. There are some people who are sabotaging everything."
Among those are fundamentalists like Tahma, the Americans say, who are proud of their attempts to hurt the US in Iraq.
"These guys, you can't change their minds - you have to kill them, and squash them like an ant," says a senior US officer familiar with Tahma's case. "He's a terrorist."