Fallujah's Front Line

IWPR reporters fend off charges of espionage and collaboration to speak to the insurgents facing down the Americans.

Fallujah's Front Line

IWPR reporters fend off charges of espionage and collaboration to speak to the insurgents facing down the Americans.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

The closest we can get to Fallujah on the main highway from Baghdad is a checkpoint manned by United States forces outside the town of Abu Ghraib, some 20 kilometres short of our destination.

As we approach, drivers heading the other direction tell us we need to continue our journey on back roads. "It's only open to the over-fifties – old men only," shouted a passing cabbie. Fighting-age males such as us are banned.

We turn onto the side roads running through the orchards and fields of the Euphrates valley, asking passers-by the way to Fallujah.

The route is well known. For the past week, volunteers have plied it to bring in weapons and supplies. The stretch of countryside between Baghdad and Fallujah is known for its strong tribes, its Sunni conservatism, and its tradition of military service. The towns here are little more than dusty market streets, surrounded by groves of palm and citrus trees.

Today, the towns are deserted, and all government offices are closed. Some graffiti on a nearby wall reads, "To any Americans: say hello to the mujahedin before they kill you."

Since the Americans moved into Fallujah on April 4, inhabitants of this region – many whom have tribal ties with the embattled city – have been launching solidarity attacks on US military columns passing through the area.

Residents say the Americans have closed the highways in return, firing on anyone who moves outside of the towns. At the main hospital in Abu Ghraib, doctors tell us that 24 civilians have been killed in the last week alone.

One of them was 11-year-old Anwar Aziz. Doctors say soldiers shot him when he threw a stone at a passing Humvee. The bullets ripped away most of his chest. They believe the soldiers must have thought the boy was throwing a grenade.

A friend takes us to see the boy's father, Aziz Mohammed al-Hiyali. The man welcomes us in his house, and vents his anger. "Was my son a terrorist?" he asked us. "Did my son threaten security? He was a child, but he hated the occupation, and his stone was answered with a bullet. The blood of my son will not be wasted, and we shall avenge him."

We drive on.

In the town of Gurma, only a few km from Fallujah, the fighting has only recently ended. Two burned-out Humvees at the entrance to the town – one in the street, the other crashed into a nearby riverbed – bear witness to the intensity of the fighting, as do holes ripped through the walls of buildings.

The police station has been abandoned. Inside, a one-legged man loads chairs and satellite receivers onto his pick-up truck with the help of his two adolescent sons. He mocks the police for leaving. "Where do you imagine they got off to?" he asked.

Most of the inhabitants fled across the desert during lulls in the fighting, while others express their fury at the Marines for turning their town into a battlefield.

"Bush doesn't need to dig mass graves - he collapses our houses on top of us," shouted Abed Eid, pointing to the remains of three metal casings marked as AGM-114s - helicopter-fired "Hellfire" missiles - which slammed into his home.

Although the police are gone, there's still someone keeping an eye on things.

A pick-up truck pulls up, and the clamour of voices suddenly dies. Two men get out, their faces covered by the red-and-white checked yishmagh shawl favoured by the insurgents. They demand to know who we are, and to see our identification. "Are you spies?" one of them asked.

Satisfied we are journalists, they point to one of us, Aqil. "You - come with us. The rest of you - stay here," they said.

Aqil is blindfolded and loaded into the car. Later, he tells us that he felt numb. "I can't describe this moment," he said afterwards. "I could see death, just before me."

"We just want you to meet Abu Walid," one of the insurgents told him as they drove away. Aqil is overwhelmed with relief. Abu Walid, it unfolds, is a local guerrilla commander who served as a sniper in the Iraqi Special Forces.

He fought in all of Iraq's wars - against the Iranians, against insurgents in the marshes of the south and against the Americans in 1991 and 2003. His men claim that Abu Walid never misses a shot.

Twenty minutes later, Aqil’s blindfold is removed.

In front of him, Aqil sees a man dressed in loose pyjama pants and a button-down shirt. Only his eyes are visible through his yishmagh.

Beside him is propped a Dragunov, a Russian-made sniper rifle issued only to the elite of the Iraqi military. Everything about the man, the room, and his weapon is spotlessly clean.

In a slow, deep voice, Abu Walid told Aqil that he had been brought here to "let American forces know about our power".

The American casualty figures – 70 soldiers killed throughout Iraq since April – are a lie, he says, "I myself killed maybe 100 soldiers. Every day we destroy at least three vehicles, just in the gateway to Fallujah, in Gurma. Americans are liars."

He derides American demands to turn over the gunmen who killed four Pentagon contractors on March 31, which touched off the American incursion, "These people [responsible for the deaths] are not from Fallujah. But even if they were, that is no cause to kill 700 people" – a reference to the civilian death toll, according to local hospital sources.

Abu Walid predicts that the insurgents' numbers will increase, "In the past, there were many people who did not like the resistance. Now, there are many whose families have been killed. They want to avenge their families."

Abu Walid serves lunch – a stew of peas and mutton over rice – to his guest, then leaves. Aqil is blindfolded again, and driven back to his worried colleagues, who have gone through nearly a pack of cigarettes each in his absence.

By then, the sun is going down, and the road back to Baghdad is too dangerous to travel. A townsman puts us up in his house. We sleep fitfully, but the night is quiet. In the morning we set off again. We hire a young man from Gurma as our guide, and set off on the road to Fallujah.

The final leg of our journey will take us across a bridge over a tributary of the Euphrates river, and into the besieged city.

As we drive over a dirt road towards the bridge, a volley of explosions rings out in the orchards across the river. We stop to watch. An F-16 fighter circles above, then swoops down firing rockets.

We try to make a call from our Thuraya satellite phone. Just then, we spot two men coming up the road. They are unarmed, and their faces are bare. But we know that they are insurgents, keeping an eye on the road. They approach us, demand to see our identification and ask if we are volunteers who have come to join the fighting. Their accent is not Iraqi – possibly Syrian.

As we speak, the F-16 passes low overhead and we all dive for the cover of a nearby ditch. When we emerge, the men – apparently suspecting that our Thuraya call was an attempt to give away their GPS position – no longer think we are would-be mujahedin. "Are you spies?" one asked furiously. "What are you doing here? Who did you call?"

Our guide says nothing, but we become angry in return. "How can you say this? We are Iraqis, we are Muslims - we came here to help you, because the Americans aren't telling the truth about casualties," we claimed, and show them our photographs of damaged houses in Gurma.

This display of indignation convinces them, but they say they caught and executed three "spies" the day before. "They were like you – they were students, they had a car and a Thuraya," one of the men said.

We don't know if they were telling the truth or just trying to frighten us, but we do not ask any more details.

The men leave us, and our guide leads us to the river. A fisherman ferries us across, and we encounter two more insurgents who - satisfied with our motives - take us towards the orchard where the militants are based.

As we approach, we see a pair of masked men, carrying the body of a man with a major chest wound. We stand silently as the insurgents bring a total of 15 of their dead comrades, and lay them to rest in shallow graves. An old man stands reading the Koran.

Three of the dead fighters look very young. "These are all less than 15 years old," shouted one of the insurgents, pointing at the dead teenagers. "Look what the Americans have done!"

When the burial is over, we move closer towards the front lines. We stop around 50 metres behind their forward entrenchments, at their ammunition depot, to watch the continuing battle.

For the next two hours, we watch as masked men run back and forth to their forward entrenchments ferrying RPG rockets, Kalashnikov clips, and belts of ammunition for their PKS machineguns and Doshka automatic grenade launchers.

A particularly loud roar, one of the insurgents tells us, is an anti-tank missile – normally launched from a helicopter – that was captured from Iraqi army stock after the war. The man who fires the missile now must wrap himself in an extra layer of clothes, soaked with water, to protect him from the back-blast. Even so, the insurgent tells us, he will still sustain burns.

The bridge shields the fighters from the US ground forces, and the machinegun and cannon rounds of their personnel carriers pass harmlessly overhead. A half-dozen times, however, Apache gunships appear, firing their rockets and whirring 30mm machineguns into the trees. One insurgent launches a Strella shoulder-launched heat-seeking missile, but the Apache manoeuvres, and the missile arches harmlessly away into the sky.

Through binoculars provided by one of the fighters, we see two burnt-out Humvees and a personnel carrier on our side of the bridge - the result, the insurgents say, of a morning ambush which began the battle. But they have not been able to score any kills since. "The vehicles have a magnetic field which makes our rockets miss," one of the insurgents said.

We ask about the ceasefire supposedly in affect, and a fighter tells us the Americans broke this by trying to enter Fallujah across the bridge. "We defended it. We won't allow them inside," he said. “There's no trusting the Americans."

We leave the fighters to their battle, and make our way back towards our car. Tracers and RPG rounds are still criss-crossing the river as the fisherman rows us back.

The road to Fallujah will clearly not be opening any time soon.

Aqil Jabbar, Muhammed Fawzi, and Dhiya Rasan are IWPR trainees

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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