Saddam's Men Resurgent

Former Republican Guards team up with foreign Islamist militants in Fallujah to fight Coalition forces.

Saddam's Men Resurgent

Former Republican Guards team up with foreign Islamist militants in Fallujah to fight Coalition forces.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

On the highway leading to Fallujah, gunmen took up sandbagged positions under palm trees by the roadside. They were expecting an attack by United States troops of the Coalition.

While some of the men wore the Arab scarves favoured by the insurgents, others were dressed in blue police uniforms or even the US-issue desert camouflage of the Fallujah Protection Force, set up by the Coalition to defend the town against the militants.

Two days earlier, US aircraft struck what Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said was a safe-house belonging to foreign fighters loyal to radical Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarkawi.

The men were now anticipating an incursion at any moment, and were jumpy when an IWPR contributor appeared.

"Are you a spy?" yelled one man in a black ski mask when the reporter approached him for an interview. "Are you carrying a Thuraya [satellite] phone so as to give away our position?"

When the fighters searched the reporter, they discovered foreign press cards with English writing on them and decided to refer the matter to someone named Sheikh Yassin – who appeared moments later, wearing the white robe and cap of a Sunni cleric.

"Where are you from? Do you work with the Americans? If you are a spy we'll burn you alive," said Sheikh Yassin.

"I am here to tell the truth," said the reporter.

The sheikh told him to remain with the fighters and to wait for the "colonel".

Suddenly the area was full of nervous activity. "The Americans are coming, the Americans are coming," men shouted into their walkie-talkies.

A Nissan pickup truck arrived, driven by a police lieutenant.

"I want someone who can use an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade launcher] - quick!" shouted the officer.

Four volunteers raised their hands. The officer selected one man, and climbed into the back of the truck which drove off to a flyover several hundred metres up the road.

The officer positioned the volunteer behind the bridge. Soon, three US vehicles – two Humvees and an armoured car – appeared.

The volunteer fired off a rocket from his RPG, and hit the lead Humvee. There was a huge explosion, and the Humvee began burning. None of the occupants was seen getting out, and the two other vehicles backed off.

The officer returned in the pickup, to applause and shouts of "congratulations" from the fighters.

The man earlier identified as the "colonel" soon arrived, dressed in the uniform of the old Republican Guards.

He too asked whether the reporter was a spy, but relented after hearing why he was there.

The colonel said Baath party members and Republican Guards were active in this Sunni town, and that the latter were also helping Shia groups opposed to the Coalition.

"Fallujah will be the starting point for reforming the Arab Baath Socialist Party," he said. "Many of our friends from the Baath in Baghdad and other cities have come to join us in Fallujah, because we are like a safe haven for Baathists. We are a striking force, and we are free because of our power."

He continued, "We sent 20 officers from the Special Republican Guard to train members of the Mahdi Army [supporters of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr] in Kufa to carry out military operations."

Then he departed, telling Sheikh Yassin, "I'm going now, and when I come back, I don't want to see this journalist."

The sheikh nevertheless allowed a few interviews, and gave one himself.

Asked, "Why do you kidnap foreigners?", he replied, "The foreigners are one of the weapons we use against the occupation. We kidnap foreigners as a way to pressure American forces."

The cleric denied any part in the killing of South Korean translator Kim Sun-il, believed to be the work of Zarkawi's followers.

"The Korean man who was killed - we don't know anything about him, because we answer to the Muslim Clerics' Board," he said, referring to an umbrella group of Sunni clergymen which had called for the hostage to be released.

The police lieutenant who arranged the attack seemed happy to explain his ambiguous role as both an insurgent and a policeman for the new Iraqi administration.

"Why do you fight the American forces? They order you to maintain security in Fallujah," said the IWPR contributor.

"I am from the resistance, and resistance members become stronger by working with the American forces. I now know their weak points," replied the officer.

He said the resistance consisted of former Iraqi army and Baath members, Islamists, and also people who were outwardly loyal servicemen in the new government’s military and police forces.

Asked where the militants' arms came from – the reporter saw US-issue anti-tank weapons and M16 rifles – the lieutenant replied tersely, "Spoils of war."

The police officer noted that the Islamic fighters here included many Syrians, led by Sheikh Yassin. The Syrians present showed no reluctance to give their names or say why they had come here.

"We stand alongside our Iraqi brothers against the occupation," said Rashid Ghanem, 35. "We also fight because the Americans' next move will be against Syria, and we want to make America weak before they arrive in Syria."

Another fighter said he had heard that Saddam Hussein's daughter Rana would be arriving in Fallujah in a few days, and named a prominent local member of the Muslim Clerics Board who he said had bought her a house.

Leaving before the colonel returned, IWPR's reporter drove around the city.

Everywhere there were officers in the uniform of the Republican Guard. The soldiers of Battalion 505, part of the Coalition-created National Guards, saluted them and followed their orders.

Meanwhile, the boom of air strikes echoed in the background.

The road back to Baghdad was choked with cars full of families, their furniture piled high on top. Drivers picked up passengers from the roadside, asking for no payment.

I shared a car with a husband and wife, along with their children. As the children slept, the wife cried. Her husband tried to comfort her.

"I will never come back to Fallujah again," he said.

Aqil Jabbar is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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