The kidnapping and beheading of foreign workers has become the latest and most effective weapon in the arsenal of Iraq's growing insurgency. Since April, dozens of foreigners have been kidnapped, including a growing number of truck drivers working for companies providing services to the U.S - led coalition. This week, four Lebanese truck drivers disappeared. (In an odd twist on the phenomenon, a video aired on the Internet that purportedly showed an American being decapitated in Iraq was revealed to be a hoax.)
United States military commanders believe the kidnapping rings are operating largely out of the restive town of Fallujah in Iraq's troubled Sunni Triangle where suspected Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also may be hiding. The grisly nature of the beheadings, and the disastrous effect of the kidnappings on Iraq's economy have led many Iraqis to insist that the presence of foreign jihadi fighters in their midst is creating internal divisions within the insurgency itself.
Meanwhile, more violence has exploded in the holy city of Najaf and Baghdad's Sadr City where U.S Marines are engaged in fierce fighting with supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers in the Mehdi army. U.S commanders report that as many as 400 Iraqi fighters have been killed, as well as two Marines. Mehdi army spokesmen say their casualty number is closer to 100. Similar clashes have broken out across the south in Basra and Nasiriyah, and some fear the fighting could spread to other cities. A fragile truce has been in place in Najaf for the last several weeks after the first uprising in April left dozens of Iraqis and American soldiers dead in the bloodiest month of fighting since the ground invasion. Today's violence marks a definitive end to the truce.
U.S Marines have only recently pulled out of Fallujah as well, leaving the city largely in the hands of resistance fighters. Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi, the leading Sunni cleric in Fallujah, shared his thoughts with NEWSWEEK's Scott Johnson on how the insurgency there is evolving. Security concerns dictated that the interview be conducted in writing, through an intermediary. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How is Fallujah doing after the withdrawal of U.S Marines?
Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi: The problems started after the Americans entered the city at the end of April, 2003: Provocations, humiliations and arrests. All of us remember the incident at the school, which led to several civilian deaths [after U.S. troops opened fire on Iraqi civilians, killing 15 people and wounding dozens of demonstrators protesting the occupation]. Now, thanks to Allah, Fallujah is back to normal. We solve our problems through scholars, tribal sheikhs and police. The problem was the Americans inside the city because they started the violence.
Have the resistance fighters in Fallujah moved on to other cities to fight the Americans there?
The Fallujah Mujahideen are the sons of the city. They are not organized in a military-like order. Frankly speaking, the main goal of the resistance here is to protect the city. Besides, everyone in the world knows that there are resistance groups in Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, Baghdad, Baquba as well as the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr in Karbala and Najaf. Every city in Iraq has resistance today and they do not need the people of Fallujah. We do pray for them everyday, we pray that the resistance all over Iraq will achieve victory.
Is the kidnapping and beheading of foreign workers a legitimate way to punish the occupation?
Honest resistance is a legitimate right against the occupation all over the world. It is not governed by the ideas of small groups of people. If they think beheading civilians is a means of pressure over the occupation, then they don't understand the concept of honest and true resistance, which targets the American and British occupation.
Are the groups doing the beheading connected to one another?
The beheadings are not happening in Fallujah and it is not accepted or approved by the people here. Our feelings are directed towards the occupation. Also, Fallujah does not have any foreign fighters.
Who is responsible for the suicide bombings then?
The suicide operations hold deeper aims. The resistance and mujahideen have nothing to do with these operations, because if they were related to the resistance, they would have started much earlier on. Most Iraqis agree with me that it is the Iranians who want revenge from Iraqis. They have never forgotten the Iran-Iraq war. The bombings in Baqouba, and the churches of Baghdad, and earlier the shrines in Karbala, Kadhimiya and Najaf happened because the field is open for anyone who wants mix the cards for Iraqis.
What role did you play in the negotiations for the release of the hostages?
The kidnappings in Fallujah are very limited. The scholars and tribal sheikhs took part in the release of the Jordanian hostages.
Some people in Fallujah say that the existence of foreign fighters has made the conditions in the city go from bad to worse.
The resistance has never been under the control of foreigners. The people of Fallujah do not need foreigners to fight for them. The first acts of resistance were by its people, just like what is happening now in Sadr City. Even the commercial conditions now getting better now. Shops are opened from the morning to late hours at night.
It seems that there are two sorts of resistance: the local resistance that attacks the U.S. military and the resistance doesn't distinguish between military and civilian targets.
The honest resistance, which is even recognized by Bush, will always remain powerful in Iraq. I do admit there are people who joined the resistance as an excuse to kidnap and kill the police and steal from innocent people. And I do advise people to stop whomever tries mix the cards. There must be one aim that all groups in Iraq aim at.
Who kidnapped the Jordanians and who organized their release?
As I said there are groups who joined the resistance as an excuse to rob people under the pretext that they are cooperating with the Americans or bringing stuff for them. This group robbed the Jordanians. But, the mujahideen in Fallujah took responsibility for releasing them.
The Americans believe that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is hiding in Fallujah.
Dear brother, the Americans create their enemy, then they fight him. There is no Zarqawi in Fallujah, nor the so-called followers of Zarqawi. The people of Fallujah do not need Zarqawi to defend them. If there is someone called Zarqawi, I am not grateful for his attack on our policemen.
Would you welcome Arab or Islamic peacekeeping forces under an international framework?
We have suffered a lot under the occupation and are still suffering. The Arab and Islamic countries would do better to support Iraqis economically and commercially--and by exchanging scientists--than by siding with America, which wants Muslims fight with each other. I do not welcome them in Fallujah or Karbala or anywhere else in Iraq.
You are wanted by the Americans.
Even during Saddam's time I was tortured and prevented from preaching. If you say the truth you will become an outlaw and wanted. Saddam was unjust and the Americans are also unjust. That is why I am wanted.
How do you view the Iraqi government. Do you think it has the possibility of independence?
The government is illegitimate because it didn't result from elections or public national support. It's not welcomed on the public level and I advise the Americans to change it. It won't succeed as long as it is killing Iraqis with American weapons.