Once Iraqis' ally, now enemy

Shift: Some who welcomed Hussein's fall say U.S. soldiers' killing of civilians inspires attacks on the "foreign infidels."

October 12, 2003|By David Filipov | David Filipov,THE BOSTON GLOBE

RAMADI, Iraq - A few hours after he mounted his latest raid on a U.S. military convoy, Mohamed sat serenely in the shade of date palms on the manicured lawn outside a relative's farmhouse and explained his decision to wage war against the Americans who occupy his country.

President Bush has attributed the daily attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq to "foreign terrorists" and "members of the old Saddam regime." But Mohamed said he fights neither for Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party nor for the return of the ousted dictator.

Like many residents in this Sunni Muslim stronghold west of Baghdad, Mohamed said the heavy-handed treatment of ordinary Iraqis by U.S. forces and the military's quickness to use lethal force have driven him to fight back. Residents say hundreds of accidental shootings of innocent civilians by U.S. troops have turned people against the occupation they initially welcomed.

Mohamed said he has come to believe in a simple principle that has galvanized the resistance movement and spurred a resurgence of Islamic piety and Iraqi nationalism: Iraqi Muslims - not "foreign infidels" - should be running their country.

"We don't need Saddam, and we don't need Americans," said Mohamed, who spoke on the condition that only his last name be published. "We need a Muslim to lead us to peace."

Mohamed's words, and those of more than 30 residents familiar with the resistance fighters interviewed in the main towns west of Baghdad - Ramadi and Fallujah - belie the U.S. stance that all resistance fighters are former Baathists or foreign terrorists.

Mohamed's Sunni homeland in the fertile Euphrates Valley is the front line of postwar combat in Iraq. Crouching along the highway, small, organized groups of rebels such as Mohamed's attack U.S. troops daily, firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and detonating remote-controlled bombs as military vehicles pass.

The burly 28-year-old father of two offered insights into the secret, ruthless world of Iraq's anti-American resistance, which has killed 92 U.S. troops and wounded more than 730 since Bush declared an end to major combat May 1.

A U.S. military official confirmed the details of the attack Mohamed said he carried out on the morning of the interview. Mohamed said he thought Americans might have been killed in the attack. Noble said one American was wounded.

"At first when the Americans came, many people said: `Welcome. They are our friends.' Then most Iraqis saw how Americans kill Iraqis, day after day. They make more and more enemies here."

Accidental shootings by U.S. troops have fed support for rebels and the Sunni clerics who inspire the resistance, like Sheik Yunis Abdalla, in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, who was imprisoned by Hussein's regime for his ardent criticism. Now he says the American occupation is pushing Iraqis toward the kind of devotion to Islam, and rejection of Western values, that he and other Muslim leaders want to see. "In a few months Bush has achieved what I couldn't in 10 years," he said.

Members of Iraq's Sunni minority had a favorable status compared with the Kurds in the north and the majority Shiite Muslims in the south. Still, they remember Hussein for his repression and hardship. For many, Hussein is now a symbol of a more orderly past, contrasted with the insecurity and hardship of life under the U.S.-led occupation, said Osam Fahdawi, who owns a construction company in Fallujah.

"We don't like Saddam; he was a dictator," Fahdawi said, as U.S. jets and helicopters patrolled the skies and small-arms fire chattered outside. "But the Americans, they handcuff us, they put us on the floor in front of our wives and children. It's shameful for us."

The coalition-appointed Iraqi Governing Council is not seen as a solution; rather, its members are seen as collaborating with the occupation. "These people are American spies," Fahdawi said.

Expressing an opinion heard repeatedly, Mohamed said he did not oppose the U.S.-led war until American soldiers killed 18 Iraqi demonstrators during two incidents in Fallujah in April, two weeks after Hussein was ousted. "They started killing our relatives and friends and our brothers, and of course, we had to start to give it back," Mohamed said.

Mohamed said he is sure he has killed American soldiers, but does not know how many because it is risky to check for casualties.

"When we attack the Americans, they start shooting like blind people, in all directions," often killing innocent civilians, he said. He called those deaths a trade-off he is willing to accept if the fighting helps drive out the Americans. "This is also psychological because then the Americans make enemies," Mohamed said.

Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority that runs Iraq, denied U.S. forces are universally unpopular in Fallujah and Ramadi. He said $4.5 million worth of reconstruction projects in the area have accompanied the effort to root out resistance fighters.

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