Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Fallujans Defend Their Defenders

Residents in the rebellious town don’t care whether the fighters are foreign or domestic.
By Dhiya Rasan

The eastern outskirts of Fallujah are littered with burnt-out civilian and military vehicles.


That’s one result of more than three months of on-again, off-again battles between US Marines and fighters based in this stronghold of the Iraqi insurgency.


Slightly further on is another grim result.


That’s the "Martyrs' Cemetery”, a former football stadium deserted – locals say – by young men who have joined the mujahideen, or holy warriors, defending the town.


The hundreds of shallow graves dug in the yellow soil contain the bodies of fighters and civilians killed in the fighting.


The graves are a reminder of the price the town has paid for being an insurgency-controlled enclave in the heart of Iraq.


US and Iraqi interim government officials also say Fallujah is the likely base of radicals responsible for a string of car bombs across the country.


First on the list of allegedly Fallujah-based suspects is Jordanian-born Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who, the Americans allege, has pioneered devastating attacks on civilian targets.


Even after the fighting, US fighter bombers regularly hit homes in Fallujah which they claim are safe houses used by Zarqawi's al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad organisation.


Fallujans, for the most part, deny that Zarqawi is present in their town, although they concede that there are many non-Iraqis among them - particularly Syrians, but also some Kurdish Islamists from the Ansar al-Sunna organisation.


Regardless of the fighters’ origins, though, people interviewed by IWPR said they would not permit foreign or Iraqi forces to enter the town in pursuit of Zarqawi or anyone else.


"We will not allow the Jews and Crusaders [a reference to US forces] to enter our sacred town using al-Zarqawi as an excuse," said Sheikh Ibrahim al-Janabi.


"They will find the gates of hell open in front of them" if they try, added Janabi, a local preacher whose short-hemmed dishdasha robe and long beard marks him as a Salafi, or practitioner of a puritan form of Islam.


Many refuse to condemn Zarqawi's actions, out of solidarity with a fellow combatant against the Americans, regardless of his nationality.


"I do not care whether those who carry out the bombings are Jordanian or Syrian. The most important thing to me is that they fight for the sake of God, and terrify the occupiers and the renegade Iraqis who support them," said Waleed Khalid, 26, at the town's al-Mustafa mosque.


"It is not our tradition to deliver our guests to our enemies."


Some people defend attacks that have claimed the lives of many civilians.


"All the attacks which target infidel forces and their renegade assistants are blessed and sharai [religiously legitimate] whether they are carried out by the mujahid Abu Muysab al-Zarqawi or someone else," said Sheikh Muhammed Ayd, 29, who preaches at the al-Mustafa mosque.


"They cause casualties among the occupation forces and those who support them or assist them ... while the innocents who are killed by accident are considered martyrs."


While the last sentiment was common among Fallujans, a local representative of the Muslim Scholars' Board, a Baghdad-based Sunni organisation with branches across the country, did not agree.


Even as he supported the "necessity of dismissing the occupiers from our sacred country", board representative Sheikh Malik al-Niami refused to condone attacks on Iraqi civilians.


"There is no benefit from fighting and killing the innocents. We have to be patient and [use] political pressure to achieve independence and remove the foreigners from the country," he said, adding that acts against the occupation should be like "drops of water which erode a big stone quietly".


Dhiya Rasan is an IWPR trainee.