The Paris Match interview
The following is a translation of the article "Voici le commando qui a touché l'Airbus" ("The commandoes who hit the Airbus"), in Paris Match, Nov. 27, 2003, by Claudine Vernier-Palliez.
It is dawn and the time for first prayer. The ten men lay down their weapons on the ground and prostrate themselves towards Mecca. Three cars await them. They start off like a whirlwind; we don't know where they are taking us. They stop in a cloud of dust, a few kilometers further, to recover a Sam-7 surface-to-air missile wrapped in a white fabric and hidden in a thicket, at the edge of a dirt track. Then they take out RPG-7s, Kalashnikovs and machine-guns concealed in the rear of the van. "Today," shouts the leader, "we will shoot down a plane! We had planned to carry out this operation tomorrow evening, but it will be this morning." He raises his arms towards the sky and begs Allah to support them.
The "resistance" movement he directs has already shot down five planes since May, all military, he claims. "Nobody has confirmed it, but everybody here knows that, since the end of the war, the Americans are hiding their deaths." The first, he says, was around June 15, on the Nasiriyya highway, 140 km from Baghdad. "We counted 177 corpses that were never announced. Not a word either of the 50 soldiers who arrived from Turkey on board an aircraft which was hit on landing at Baghdad airport, October the 2 or 3, I forgot the exact date. We fired two missiles at 7 o'clock in the morning, and hit the fuselage of the plane. I believe that it was a C-130."
More verifiable than his previous rather fantastic claims, he adds that one week before the beginning of the Ramadan, one Thursday, before sundown, his team brought down a helicopter that fell into the Euphrates. "But a plane," he adds, in a chortle muffled by the red and white scarf that covers his face, "strategically, that has more weight."
On Friday, Nov. 21, somewhere in Baghdad, the head of these commandos told us that one day he had seen a DHL Airbus, flying low. "We did not fire, we never fire on civilian aircraft. Also, I didn't know what DHL stood for. Afterwards, when my friend explained that these planes transported the mail of GI's, I regretted that a little. I could have deprived the soldiers of the letters from their moms and their fiancees. Next time, I'd fire!"
The sun rises and throws a red hue on the men who are taking their weapons and starting to prepare for 'the operation.' A farmer passes, his shovel on his back. He understands what is up and says simply, "God bless you and keep you", before moving away quietly towards his field of tomatoes. The leader pricks up his ears: a plane has just taken off from Baghdad airport, less than four km from there. "We first locate them from the sound, then scan the sky, but they are not always very visible." The team takes position. Eight men place themselves 15 meters apart, RPG's in front and Russian BKC machine-guns behind, ready to fire if an American patrol ventures into the area. Two men move away slightly from the group, each one carrying on their shoulder a Sam-7 surface-to-air missile. Also called a "Strella", it is of Russian manufacture. A man, his face masked by a white scarf, explains its operation to us. "This one is older; it is necessary to activate this release mechanism to get the missile onto its target. In general, only one-in-three of these missiles reaches its target. The other is more modern and the locking of the missile on the target is automatic. It's much more accurate." [They are apparently describing a SA-7 Strella 2, and a SA-14 Strella 3, suggesting they had both kinds with them that morning. -br] One can hardly distinguish the plane which rises in the sky. "Too far, too high!" shouts the leader, and turns away.
After driving half an hour in the countryside, the leader gives the order to stop at the end of a sunken lane and to park the cars so that they are ready, spread out and pointed in different directions. We are within two kilometers of the airport, a little before 9 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 22. The sky is clear and the sun already almost too bright. Wild dogs wander around, tails raised like question marks, and the farmers who lead their cows to the fields must know who these men with the faces hidden under scarves are. Do they support their actions? The "soldiers" that form the look-out party around the launchpoint take their positions. One of them films the scene, a Kalashnikov in one hand, a small camera in the other. Three men wait at the wheel of the cars, ready to go. Suddenly, the leader, who, since arriving has been listening acutely and scanning the sky, shouts, "A plane! Come on, you, get in position, prepare to launch!" The aircraft is flying approximately 1500 meters up, 3 km away from us. The two men, 50 meters apart from each other, await the orders, Strellas on their shoulders. They believe they've spotted an American military Boeing 747.
The leader howls, "Fire!" At 9:08 the first missile takes off. The second, five seconds later, misses the target. The leader jumps with joy like a child and raises the hands to the sky, "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" Then he gives the order to quickly pack up the weapons and each car takes off in a whirlwind, each in a different direction. We will discover later by the press dispatches that the commandoes had fired on a DHL Airbus... A civilian target!
The day before, his face always masked with his red and white scarf, the leader had tried to explain us the reasons for his actions. "So far, the plans of the Americans have failed, and the opposition to them is a response to their behavior towards the Iraqi people. They neither understood nor respected us. Under the pretext of liberating us, they took away our last freedoms. Everyone here will tell you that they lived better under Saddam; however, we hated him too. Today, we are stretching out our hand to the Americans. We will let them have what they want, if they give us what we want: our freedom and our right to control our own country.
"We know all they are here for is the oil. We believe they should keep it, but let Iraqis have 1% of the revenue. For us, that would be enough. In order to manage this business, they will have to remain in Iraq, of course. We accept that they should remain, but in their bases, far away from the Iraqis, and that they cease their unjust actions towards our people. In exchange, we ask them for a minimum of respect and freedom. We thus believe a new government should be created, by mutual agreement between we Iraqis and the Americans. Officially, this government would be chosen by the Americans, but, actually, it would be chosen through negotiations with us carried out in secrecy and which would remain a secret for eternity.
"I am myself Sunni, like the majority of the members of resistance, but I accept, like my companions, that the next president of Iraq will be Shiite, or even Christian. That isn't important, because freedom and justice will finally reign in this country. I already proposed my idea to certain politicians, but they retorted that the Shiites and the Christians will massacre me. I am ready to sacrifice myself to see my idea succeed, though. Only justice will save us. If the Americans accept our proposals, there would be an immediate armistice. But it would be necessary to show goodwill on both sides."
He asks me to be his intermediary to the French government to help it understand his ideas. I decline his invitation.
He tries to convince me: "When I saw that the Americans had started to burn people's houses with phosphorus, I understood that they wanted to destroy us. Then I decided to join together with some of my friends. Our religion forbids theft or plundering, so we made inquiries in a perimeter of approximately 200 kilometers around Baghdad for places where we could "borrow" weapons and ammunition. Then we went ourselves to these dumps to collect them. We recovered not a bad number of weapons and buried them." I do not like weapons, and I do not like war, I say to him.
He continues: "Our first operation took place about May 15, in the south of Baghdad. We were three with only one weapon, a Russian sniper rifle. We had 18 bullets and we fired on a convoy transporting oil from Kuwait for the Americans, and burned 18 tankers. Two GI's were killed in this operation, which we filmed, and then we sent the cassette to Al-Jazeera. At the time, they were still authorized to broadcast.
"As the reaction of the Americans was not as strong as we wished it, we decided to carry out another operation two days later. We had fifteen people with three trucks and four RPG-7s. We fired on a military convoy as it left a village. The Americans counterattacked and a bullet passed very close to the head of our cameraman, within 2 centimetres. It was a close shave! Since May 15, we changed our strategy and technique. You don't need 15 people to do damage. We started to booby trap objects, Thermos flasks, cartons, and even dead dogs, with TNT. We placed them on routes where the patrols pass, then detonated them with a remote control when they went by. We have approximately 2 tons of TNT hidden in two different places. Red on one side and white on the other. We separated the two components. Kept separate, the two are not explosive.
"Then, thinking of other possibilities, we looked for a way to get a Russian Strella missile. It is a 2 metre-long weapon, difficult to find, and even more difficult to get into Baghdad. The Americans hunt for them actively. Moreover, it was necessary for us to find gunners qualified able to use them. We succeeded in getting our hands on 28 missiles from two different dumps. Then, we awaited the reopening of the airport. Of 25 shootings, 21 have reached their target. Four failed for technical reasons. The missiles had been badly stored. If the plane flies low, or if it is a helicopter, we save the Sam-7 and use an RPG." [21 out of 25 would be a believable launch rate for Strellas, badly stored or not, not a kill rate; something may have been lost in translation here. Since this is the day before, the attack that was photographed used up 2 of their last 3 missiles, presumably -br]
The leader confides to us that, two months ago, he was contacted by an intermediary, an ex-General of the army which proposed to give him some more missiles and to open an account in dollars for him. The leader accepted. Two days later, the contact said he had to declare his allegiance to Baathism. "Apparently, this man was in contact with Saddam. I refused and never reconsidered. Last Thursday, I was contacted again by an anonymous party who proposed a field close to the airport to me, which they said would be an ideal launch point. They also spoke to me about another field in which missiles were buried. Obviously, all that interested me a lot. Three times, we went to meet. Three times, they did not come. They were afraid.
"We have advisors and partisans in all the corners of the country, but our 'troops', 200 men approximately, operate in a perimeter of 200 kilometers around Baghdad." Had they been contacted by Al-Qaida members? "Never. And I do not believe there are any in Iraq. For us Iraqis, it is already extremely difficult to move weapons around. For foreigners, it would be practically impossible. We have to change our hiding places continually. We hide with cousins, friends. We never operate twice in the same place. We strike and we disperse. We know that when the Americans encircle a place, it's like a steel trap. I believe sincerely that the Americans lie when they say they have captured Al-Qaida members. They've lied since the beginning. I went myself to check the farms supposedly full of weapons which they bombarded in Tikrit, Al-Dora and Baghdad, during their Operation "Iron Hammer." They were empty. They use disproportionately heavy artillery to fire on empty buildings. If those strikes truly had done any damage, there would have been revolts there. But it's all just hype."
Does he know who was behind the attacks against the Palestine and Sheraton hotels? "I asked my guys. It wasn't us. It is the work of cowards, probably the work of the Baathists. They never make any sacrifices. They are afraid."
For some time, the Americans offered bribes to turncoats. "Yes, one of our men was denounced by his neighbor who got a $6,000 reward. But they did not manage to lay a glove on our movement. One of our people was stopped because he was carrying a gun with a silencer. He was imprisoned for 19 days. One morning, an American interrogator came to question him. This officer did not even know why he had been stopped. Our friend said to him that he missed his wife and children, and he didn't know he was in prison, either. The interrogator released him. The Americans do not know anything. They do not even keep files on people."
And does he, the leader, invisible behind his red and white scarf, fear nothing, not even the likelihood of his own eventual death? "Each morning, I say to my wife and to my children that they should not wait up for me in the evening. I will be perhaps be already in that other world."
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