Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Patchwork of Insurgent Groups Runs Fallujah
An arms smuggler we’ll call Adnan was driving home to Fallujah last week when a masked man stopped him at a checkpoint.
The black-clad insurgent - a member of the Black Banners Brigades of the Islamic Army, the most radical of the Sunni guerrilla groups based in the town –spotted a pack of cigarettes in the car.
The Black Banners had previously announced that they considered tobacco to be “haram”, or religiously forbidden.
"Why are you smoking here? We will kill you. Give those here," said the insurgent, in what Adnan said was a Syrian accent.
But after seizing the pack, the fighter handed him a ten-dollar bill as compensation. "Take this for your family," he said.
Five months after United States Marines called off their attack on Fallujah, citizens of the town live under the often capricious rule of different groups of mujahideen, or holy warriors – ranging from Islamists and ultra-Islamists to Baathists and outright bandits.
The few police still on the streets of the town are entirely at the insurgents’ beck and call.
Divided ideologically, the various religious groups argue over issues ranging from the proper way to finance their respective movements to the treatment of foreign and Iraqi captives.
Nonetheless, residents say the groups are united on the battlefield and would fight side by side if US or Iraqi government troops were to launch a new push into Fallujah – a move that some believe likely because of the recent round of air and artillery strikes.
According to Fallujans, the Black Banners – the most feared of the town’s insurgents – are commanded by Omar al-Hadid, an Iraqi said to be affiliated with the al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. The Black Banners represent the bulk of the Syrian and other foreign fighters based in town, residents say, and are the most puritan of the groups.
They reportedly ban anything from cigarettes to popular music cassettes. Their reputation for unpredictable behaviour means that in the neighbourhoods where their checkpoints predominate, few people venture out of doors.
But the Black Banners compensate for the economic hardships brought by their presence. They readily pay several times the value of anything they commandeer, drawing on apparently ample funds.
That reputation, however, does not attach to the fighters loyal to Ahmed Samaka, who maintains Fallujah’s tradition of highway banditry by attacking US and other convoys on the roads outside town.
A letter posted on the storefronts in the name of the Consultative Council of the Mujahideen, a group of Fallujah clerics, accuses Samaka's men of taking cars without compensating their owners. "The recent behaviour of Ahmed Samaka puts him outside the boundaries of Islam," said the letter.
A third force, which is loyal to Majed Abu Darah, a former Baghdad district security chief under Saddam Hussein, has little street presence. These men are mostly former members of the Republican Guard, and are said to come out only to fight off Coalition incursions.
Fallujah's senior mujahideen leader and head of the Consultative Council is Abdullah al-Janabi, a white-bearded preacher from the puritan Salafi movement.
His men go about unmasked, wearing white dishdasha robes, and appear to enjoy a friendly rapport with the inhabitants.
Ahmed Naami, a spokesmen for Janabi, insisted that his group does not coordinate with Omar Hadid, although he described the radical leader as a "mujahid, and a pious man".
Naami said Janabi's own group does not have foreign funding, but survives on "our personal finances and the spoils of war" – including "cargo, money, cars, and ransom" both from Coalition forces and from Iraqis caught "collaborating" with them.
Apparently, there is disagreement between Janabi and Hadid's group over the treatment of hostages. The Black Banners have a reputation for killing any foreigner or accused collaborator who falls into their hands, while Naami claims that Janabi's group only seeks ransom and "does not kill any spy or hostage”.
In a possible indication of internal debate over the issue, a group with a similar name to Hadid's issued a request over Arab satellite television, asking the Muslim Clerics' Board – a gathering of Sunni religious scholars which many insurgents take as their ideological reference-point – to issue a fatwa or ruling defining hostage-taking.
Iraqi government forces are absent from the equation of power in the town. The police play little role, there is no National Guard, and even the Fallujah Protection Brigade, established last April to keep order in the town, was dissolved a month ago when its members were seen fighting alongside the insurgents.
"The mujahideen don't let us carry weapons or get together," said one police officer, unarmed and in a dishevelled uniform. His entire job now consists of watching traffic, he said.
Like many in Fallujah, this policeman expressed resentment at insurgents who are capable of calling someone a spy merely for talking with people from out of town or trying to make a call on a satellite phone.
"I hate them,” he said. “The mujahideen can decide 'you're a good man', or 'you're a spy.' If it's 'you're a spy', then you're finished."
Others resent the mujahideen’s contempt for anyone who chooses not to carry arms.
"When I see them, I say 'Welcome! Welcome mujahideen! God grant you victory!' But in my heart I curse them," said one merchant.
He recently saw a group of fighters preparing to fire a mortar outside his house, and asked for a few minutes to get his family away from the area before US forces shot back.
The insurgents granted the merchant's request, but only grudgingly, telling him he was a coward, not a Muslim.
But Naami insisted that the town is united, "All the people are mujahideen. Some carry weapons against the Jews and Americans, and some donate cars or money.
"We are the pride of the Iraqis. Anyone who goes to Syria or Jordan is proud to be from Fallujah."
Dhiya Rassan is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight