A Peacemaker Runs the Gantlet in Fallouja

Hachim Hassani braves hostilities on both sides in seeking to arrange a truce. His fear is that the violence could spread across Iraq.

April 16, 2004|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Hachim Hassani engages in shuttle diplomacy, Iraq-style.

Here's what that means: Hop into a Toyota Land Cruiser and speed toward the besieged city of Fallouja, hoping that the U.S. Marines don't shoot you as you head toward their positions, and that the rocket and mortar fire from insurgents doesn't get you either.

Then spend eight hours in a mosque full of angry city elders as American bombs thunder outside. Dodge assassination attempts on the road back to Baghdad, stopping on the way to pick up a woman who has been shot by a sniper.

Hassani is a businessman, a former Angeleno, an acting Iraqi Governing Council member and the last link between the U.S.-led coalition and the people of Fallouja, who have long been a thorn in the coalition's side and have become a national symbol of resistance to the occupation.

During several days of freelance negotiations this week, Hassani, a leader of the once-outlawed Iraqi Islamic Party, brokered a shaky truce between militants and the U.S. forces that have encircled the city of 300,000 in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle.

"I'm still hoping the sound of wisdom is louder than the sound of guns," said Hassani, 50. But he said that he still owned a home in Culver City in case the situation in his native country continued to deteriorate.

He and other members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Muslim group, are pessimistic. Doctors in Fallouja say more than 600 Iraqis have been killed since Marines went into the city to find those responsible for the killing and mutilation of four American civilian contractors late last month.

The offensive has enraged a wide cross-section of the populace and may be contributing to a more aggressive insurgency across the Sunni Triangle region outside Baghdad.

U.S. generals said Thursday that they were also growing impatient and complained that their troops -- who have suffered at least 32 deaths in Fallouja and the surrounding area during the fighting -- continued to be fired on.

"I'm still very scared that I will wake up tomorrow and find the Marines in the city," Hassani said. "That scares me, not because of what happens in Fallouja, but because it will spread to other areas."

In his harrowing commutes, Hassani must traverse Iraq's Highway 10, which runs west from Baghdad through the prison town of Abu Ghraib and into Fallouja. Once a vital supply route for U.S. troops, the road is now dotted with the burned wrecks of American trucks and with mobile checkpoints erected by roving bands of insurgents.

Hassani decided to take a leadership role in brokering a cease-fire because the Iraqi Islamic Party is the lone group on the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council to have strong political and familial ties to the tribes and Sunni Muslim religious leaders in the Fallouja area.

It was the Sunnis who benefited under the regime of Saddam Hussein and have staged most of the attacks on the coalition.

Not everyone in Fallouja was willing to take up arms against the Americans during the last year. But many Falloujans, observers and negotiators say that has changed recent days.

"Before this, if there were 200 people who hated the Americans, now there are thousands," said Kais Azzawi, a political analyst and editor of the Baghdad-based newspaper Al Jariba.

That is why Hassani says the United States must step cautiously as it tries to pacify the city.

"I'm trying to help find a solution for Americans, too," Hassani said.

Hassani seems tailor-made for his role as peace broker.

Born into a prominent family in the northern city of Mosul, Hassani left Iraq in 1979, as Hussein prepared to launch his war against Iran. Hassani enrolled in graduate school at the University of Connecticut, earning a doctorate in economics.

He also became a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party. The party was founded in 1960 in Iraq but was quickly banned in the secular nation.

Hassani says the party seeks to apply Islamic principles to national government but not strict Islamic law. Until last year, it was one of a number of underground, exiled political parties struggling to topple Hussein.

A mild-mannered, hefty man who wears a jacket and tie, Hassani is comfortable sitting on the floor and digging into Iraqi stew with his hands, or conversing in fluent English about the NCAA Final Four. (He's a fan of the Connecticut Huskies, this year's college basketball champions.)

Hassani moved to the Los Angeles area in 1992 to start an Internet business. He bought a house in Claremont and started a family. But he kept dreaming of returning to Iraq, and began shuttling to London and cities in the Middle East for an unceasing series of meetings and negotiations on how to overthrow Hussein.

Hassani still regrets that he and his compatriots were unable to pull it off on their own. "That would have saved us a lot of lives and been much better," he said.

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