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The Nouvel Observateur interview

The following is a translation of the article "Au coeur de la guerrilla antiamericaine" ("In the heart of the anti-American guerilla war"), in La Nouvel Observateur, November, 2003, by Sarah Daniel.

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Who are these shadowy fighters who have badgered, since the fall of Baghdad, the forces of the coalition and whose attacks have set back American plans? Foreign terrorists infiltrated into Iraq? Baathist veterans who refuse to accept defeat? Saddam loyalists resisting the invader? Our special correspondent Sara Daniel met with a group of these combatants close to the Iraqi capital and witnessed their determination.

He sits quietly, on a plastic chair in the small garden of a Baghdad house, shooing the flies which obstinately refuse to keep away from his face. Abou Abdallah, that's his nom de guerre, is a man of around 50, with a tired smile. His double chin tipped with a short salt-and-pepper beard does not give him a warlike face. In his "combatant cell," which does not bear any name, there are a hundred men, he says. Since the beginning of the resistance, he says he has helped kill American soldiers nearly every week. The last attack in which they took part? A mortar attack on the Green Zone, in the direction of the headquarters of Paul Bremer. And blowing up an Iraqi army truck on the Mahmoudia road, the day before our meeting.

Abdallah is the insurgents' logistician. When he is not transporting rocket-propelled grenades to a resistance group in one of the other districts of Baghdad, he is looking for bomb-making instructions on the Internet for his engineers, or buying switches for a team of former Iraqi artillerymen to create improvised explosives.

His talking about their feats of arms brings to mind the images of the massacres in the first days of Ramadan. Bodies decapitated by shrapnel. Children covered in blood. After that terrible day, the natural sympathy of the Iraqi population for the "resistance" had quickly evaporated. "Ask him how he justifies the death of Iraqi children", whispers one of the people present, who was soon after denied further contact with this Iraqi resistance group because she was Shiite. But Abou Abdallah, which defines himself as a Moslem combatant determined to fight in the name of his religion to release its people of "the invader", says he hated Saddam as much as the foreign soldiers who have become immersed in their national struggle. "Why does everyone seek to take away our freedom?" he pleads. "Our group firmly condemns any actions that kill Iraqi civilians. Those who did that seek to discredit the Islamic resistance... "

He also condemns also the suicide bombers, paupers according to him, paid by "foreigners," buying peace for their families with their lives. "They offer around $20,000 for their families, nothing more. Then they are sacrificed. They only make one attack when they could have made a hundred of them. From the point of view of the struggle, it's such a waste," he says, regretting it as any good logistician would.

Initially on his guard, Abou Abdallah gradually drops his reticence. Like all the other Iraqis who have kept silent for so long, he needs to speak. To complain. To justify his fight: "A colony's struggle for freedom is something the world should know well."

Abou Abdallah explains that he is an entrepreneur who sometimes does work for the Americans: it is necessary to live well. He likes France, which he has visited several times. His father also received a doctorate in economics at the Sorbonne. "He was very nationalist and very religious. It was his teachings that today gives strength to my struggle."

When did this entrepreneur decide to start taking clandestine action against the "occupiers"? It was one day in May, when an American soldier wanted to check the papers for his car. "I did not have them. He confiscated my vehicle then he twisted my arm behind my back, nearly breaking it." Abou Abdallah stood up from his chair. He showed me what the soldier had done, recalling the pain and humiliation. It was then that he decided to join the "resistance". He, who had once idly hated Saddam, "a tyrant and a bad Muslim", decided to contact some Baathists who he thought would want to hurt the "invader."

In vain. "The cowards were still terrified of American bombs." They would wait many months before, frustrated that they had not been re-hired, generals and lieutenants of the army started joining them. "They did not come, they said, until the vulnerability of the Americans on the ground was obvious."

Today, Abou Abdallah recognizes that the help of former officers of Saddam's armies was a milestone for the guerrillas. "With more people, better trained, we were able to start using remote-controlled detonators for our bombs. And we gained a great number of Strella surface-to-air missiles which we will use against American helicopters and planes." Since the Americans recently declared a state of maximum alert, Abou Abdallah is content to sit and wait for now: "We don't attack. We wait. Their vigilance always ends up slackening." How to verify what he says? After a few hours of discussion, Abou Abdallah agrees to take us to meet a small ten-man cell that is preparing its next attack close to Mahmoudia. But before driving there, Abou Abdallah must go tell his young wife, his third, of his departure. She is out on the front steps of the house, entirely dressed in black, gloved, face covered with a black veil. She talks at length with her husband. "My wife is very jealous", explains the fighter, who has 13 children.

Our destination is a maze of farms scattered around the countryside between Youssoufia and Mahmoudia, south-east of the capital. Here the ground is rich: women dressed in multicoloured clothing carry bundles of fat, sweet dates on their shoulders. Fall has already started to yellow the leaves of the trees. After we leave the Kerbala-Kuwait highway, the air fills with the scent of flowers. But while it is beautiful being far from the chaos of Baghdad, the war is still omnipresent. In tanks and Humvees, American soldiers with watchful eyes and fingers on triggers, point their guns at everything that moves, even though they don't dare to travel on the side roads. It is a countryside under heavy surveillance.

Our path curves through a palm plantation, then straight through fields of corn. The Americans have lost so many soldiers here, that they call it "Death Road", explains Abou Abdallah. We arrive finally in front of a large concrete farm, the military HQ of the cell. "Ahmed," 23, the younger brother of the owner of the place, accomodates his brother-in-arms in a small prayer room. A few months previously, the American army had imprisoned him along with his three brothers when one of his neighbours turned them in for a $600 reward. In the farm, the coalition soldiers had found 21 bombs and as many RPG's. Since then the weapons have been buried in a safer place. The family was released after promising to collaborate with the American army.

Here, if there is anyone they hate almost as much as the Americans, it is Saddam. In 1996, one of Ahmed's uncles, a member of the Iraqi president's republican guard, tried to stage a coup against the ruler. He was executed. His entire family was jailed by the dictator. When they were finally released, Saddam stripped them of everything they owned.

Ahmed, who married last month, has never remained more than a few hours with his wife. "My country needs me", explains the young man. As a guerrilla, Ahmed has been training intensively on the Russian Strella surface-to-air missile. It's a light and handy weapon, shoulder-launched like a bazooka. Today is his last rehearsal. In a few days, it is he who will aim at the American planes. The Strella (also known as an SA-7) has been a nightmare for the Americans ever since a handful of these weapons brought down several helicopters, near Falouja and Tikrit. According to the group, the coalition is offering $3,000 to anyone who turns one in. Ahmed proudly shows off his treasured weapon, detailing its design features. His friend "Sardar", a Kurdish missile specialist in Saddam's army, trained him in the delicate handling of this sophisticated weapon.

How did Abou Abdallah, of Baghdad, meet his comrades-in-arms in Youssoufia? "For evening prayers, one often stops at the nearest mosque. At the exit, we speak. You keep silent while around those which feel sorry for the Americans, but it doesn't take long to identify those who share our ideas", explains the entrepreneur. For safety, Abou Abdallah does not the names of the other fighters "but I love them more than my own children." The cells come together and then dissolve again after each attack, one after the other. There is little co-operation between them. "Sometimes we find ourselves with several groups after the same target or we discover, when organizing an operation, that some of our friends have preceded us." Like his companions, Abou Abdallah surely exaggerates the number of its victims and often details attacks which are never reported by coalition forces. They all live paranoid lives, and believe the craziest rumours on the number of the American deserters who have exchanged their combat gear for a dishdasha and disappeared into the Iraqi desert...

While we speak, the men play with their weapons, Ahmed brandishing his Kalashnikov like a kid. Then he grabs his rocket-propelled grenade launcher, loads a rocket, and fingers the aluminum safety catch, which prevents the grenade from being fired from the RPG-7. He aims at his comrades while laughing.

If there is one thing that the rebels like as much as their weapons, it is the media. "Hassan" is their cameraman. On the small screen of his Sony camera, he shows raw footage of their recent attacks. A booby-trapped Humvee, and another American army vehicle in flames. Grenades fired at a tank. Everyday life for the American troops and those who fight them... images that the guerrillas can't send and see shown on Al-Jazira, ever since the Arab network was expelled by the Iraqi Governing Council.

Suddenly the faces tighten. The men pick up their weapons without a word. It is rehearsal time. Those who stay look on grimly, waving to the "combatants." After 15 minutes of zigzagging along dirt tracks skirting fields of tomatoes and corn in a dented pick-up, the small group halts in the countryside. They observe the planes passing above with binoculars. They check their missiles. A few metres away, farm-women tighten their date bundles and dry their abayas that have been soaked in the brook, completely indifferent to these armed men strolling through their fields.

After the practice session, amiably, the group proposes a guided tour of their arms caches. Every farmhouse has its arsenal, buried. Here, close to a field of yellow zucchinis, a farmer unearths helicopter missiles, modified to be fired from the ground. There are also RPGs, grenades, and dozens of boxes of Kalashnikov ammunition. In another spot, shells. From the start of the fighting, the Abou Abdallah group has never bought its weapons. They all were recovered by Iraqi farmers when the army was routed, either to be sold or to be used. As for the TNT with which they fill their remote-controlled bombs, it is so easy to find it that the group does not even take even the trouble to store it any more. Within a few dozen kilometres of the farms there is one of the largest explosive and bomb factories in the Middle East: an industrial complex, extending more than 35 kilometres. In the gigantic earth-covered bunkers, there is all they need. That is what Abou Abdallah's group uses. Thanks to this invaluable red powder, his companions were able to ambush a convoy on the road between Al-Asoua and the Bassora Highway, a few days ago.

Driving carefully, the pick-up takes the road to the factory. The car moves slowly. Too slowly, perhaps. An American patrol intercepts it, encircling the vehicle and making its passengers leave two by two. On a tank, a young soldier points his automatic weapon at the group. Abdallah, smiling as he left the car, exchanges pleasantries in Arabic with an American officer of Jordanian origin who questions them. After three minutes, we are allowed to leave.

When we arrive at the factory, nobody prevents us from entering. The few Iraqi armed guards that we pass do not even ask what we are doing. Walking in this city of bombs, shells, and explosives, it's obvious this is a guerrilla's paradise. All the military history of Iraq lies before us. With the fall of the regime, numerous looters have descended to grab the shells that strew the ground. It would be necessary to mobilize an army to guard this site. Which the coalition takes careful care not to do. "They do not even dare to post a sentry here," explains an Iraqi who works with the Americans. "If they were attacked, the shooting could set fire to this giant powder keg."

It is in this setting, surrounded by the rusted bombs and dust, that Abou Abdallah chooses to give us a handwritten letter addressed to the occupation forces: "We want to first of all ensure you that we do not hate the American people. Our hostility and our hatred are directed at those who govern them. And which have started a war against Muslims [... ] The Americans claims that our resistance is the doing of Saddam Hussein and foreign terrorists. But this resistance is much more than that. It is a groundswell, conveying the true desires of the Iraqi people. And which will not cease to grow in quantity and quality."

A few kilometres from Youssoufia, in the American "St. Michael" base, Maj. Alan Katz listens to us in front of a small gate squeezed between two immense concrete walls which protect the camp from the booby-trapped cars. Maj. Katz, who says he also fights for "the freedom and wellbeing of the Iraqi people," has nothing but contempt for those he calls the "bad guys": "They are cowards who do not want to fight but only press the button on remote-controlled bombs." How does he judge the situation in the area? "The situation is positive," he says. "We help people in their everyday life and they appreciate us more and more. Of course we have deaths. That's war. But we lose fewer than the bad guys do." Did the major want to send a message to those fighting the Americans? "Yes, here is what I want to say, in the name of the Iraqi people and of the coalition: we will kill you, capture you and beat you for as long as you continue your unacceptable terrorist attacks."

In the countryside, within weapons range of the American camp, Abou Abdallah's group prepares its missiles. He also insists he fights "in the name of the Iraqi people."


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