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Resistance in Iraq Is Home Grown

Nationalists and Islamists are among diverse groups joining the attacks. Foreign fighters are present in moderate numbers.

September 02, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The men attempting to recruit a former soldier in the Fedayeen Saddam militia for today's war against the Americans took him to a bearded sheik seated in a pickup truck.

They appealed to the mortar expert's sense of nationalism and then to his religious conviction. The Americans have done nothing for Iraqis. They defile the homeland. Attacking the American occupiers is the only way to make them leave, the recruiters argued.

In their shadowy guerrilla war to drive American forces out of Iraq, hundreds of insurgents have organized into cells, especially in Al Anbar province west of Baghdad and Diyala province to the northeast, both strongholds for Saddam Hussein, the Sunni tribes that supported him and Wahhabi and other Islamic fundamentalists.

Despite the U.S. government's insistence that Iraq has become the new battlefield of global terrorism, most of the resistance is home grown. The guerrillas are militants from the deposed regime, but they are also ordinary Iraqis opposed to occupation. They are ex-intelligence officers and farmers, militiamen and merchants, bombers and fishermen, according to more than a dozen interviews with Americans and Iraqis.

Added to this mix of Iraqis are the Islamic fundamentalists, especially Sunnis who have stepped into the power vacuum created by the war and its aftermath to take leadership roles in the resistance. Foreign fighters from Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have infiltrated in moderate numbers, working alongside some of the Iraqi groups. The first arrests in last week's bombing of the Imam Ali Mosque in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, for example, were said to be of two Saudi nationals allied with two Fedayeen militiamen.

The Najaf attack and the bombings in Baghdad at United Nations headquarters and the Jordanian Embassy, all within 22 days, reflect a new, higher level of coordination. For the dozen or so daily ambushes targeting American troops, however, there is little indication of an overarching coordination uniting cells.

Instead, the groups remain largely localized and their weapons of choice remain readily available from the Hussein government's leftover arsenals, according to Iraqis familiar with the resistance as well as U.S. field commanders battling it day in, day out. Bombs are made of dynamite or plastic explosives planted in discarded canisters, bottles or, more recently, the bodies of dead dogs left on the side of the road and detonated by remote control.

A guerrilla fighter from Fallouja, 35 miles west of Baghdad, said in an interview that his cell was not working with foreign fighters but is willing to do so in the future. For now, he said, his unit is adequately equipped and trained.

"The former regime left behind a huge military arsenal, and it's enough to fight for tens of years," he said.

Criminal gangs in many cases have entered a temporary marriage of convenience with the groups, according to Iraqi sources. Within the epidemic of kidnappings plaguing Baghdad, some are staged to earn ransoms to finance attacks on U.S. soldiers. And insurgent chieftains often hire common criminals to pull off bombing or shooting attacks.

About 145 U.S. soldiers have been killed since major combat was declared over May 1; 282 have been killed since the war began March 20.

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Islamic Alliance

An alliance with Islamic extremists allows guerrillas to cast their fight in religious terms, which also helps to distance them from the discredited Hussein regime. The puritanical Wahhabi brand of Islam, for example, is especially anti-Western. Adherents believe that any non-Muslim who trespasses on Islamic land is an invader who must be repelled. Its members have also clashed with the Shiites for generations.

"Our religion asks of us jihad whenever we are being occupied," said the guerrilla, who insisted on responding to questions in writing and declined to describe specific operations. Contact with him was made through an imam. "America now is an occupying country, so jihad is a must for every single Muslim in the East or West."

The guerrilla also revealed his Sunni bias against Iraq's Shiites, who have gained power in the new Iraq at Sunni expense.

"The Americans are in harmony with the Shiite, but the Shiite will not be useful to them -- their loyalty is to Iran," he said. "They are mistaken to trust the Shiite. Why such wrongful thinking?"

The mortar expert being recruited by the resistance said the bearded sheik who urged him to join the movement was a Wahhabite, probably from central Iraq.

"He spoke to me like officer to soldier, master to slave," said the man, who did not want his name used because he fears for his life. "We want you to teach your brothers how to use the mortar," the man told him. "Money is no object."

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