Fallujah: In The Hands Of Insurgents

Fidgeting with a pistol as he sits on a Persian carpet, a young mujahed named Mohammed describes his life as a member of the armed resistance. "I fought for four straight days without sleep," he says, recalling the fierce battle with U.S. Marines in Fallujah early last month. "I was living on bread and Pepsi." Beside Mohammed sits his older brother, a burly man with a scraggly beard who lifts up his striped shirt to reveal a bulky white suicide belt strapped around his waist. He tugs playfully at the two dangling detonator cords. Mohammed smiles. "For us, jihad is tourism," he says. "It is something that we do with pleasure."

Mohammed has a captive audience. Two hours earlier a photographer and I had ventured inside Fallujah's Jolan neighborhood, the epicenter of last month's fighting between mujahedin and U.S. Marines, to view the destruction and to gauge emotions in the wake of abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison. We had brought along a local man who assured us that the neighborhood was safely under the control of the Fallujah Brigade, the 1,500-man Iraqi outfit patched together by local notables and Coalition leaders to permit a U.S. withdrawal from the city. In fact, though the Fallujah Brigade had secured the town center, Jolan was still a chaotic no man's land. Minutes after stepping out of the car, we were seized at gunpoint by three fighters who commandeered our vehicles and then drove us to a house in a back alley for interrogation. Highly suspicious of all foreigners--especially Americans--the men feared that we were CIA agents who had come to Fallujah disguised as journalists to gather intelligence. Our eight-hour detention in Jolan offers an intimate, sometimes frightening look at the men who have declared a jihad against the U.S. occupation.

Fallujah, a deeply religious and insular city of 200,000 in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, has been a base for attacks against U.S. troops for the past year. Violence worsened after the U.S. Army's 82d Airborne Division handed over responsibility for the area to the I Marine Expeditionary Force in March. The March 31 killings and mutilations of four armed U.S. contractors who worked for Blackwater Consulting, murdered as they escorted a food convoy through Fallujah, intensified political pressure for military action against a growing insurgency. After midnight on April 5, two battalions of Marines, backed by Army Special Forces, entered the city as Cobra helicopter gunships and tanks provided cover fire. Mujahedin fought back with barrages of rocket-propelled grenades and ambushed troops as they attempted to gain ground. Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commander of the I Expeditionary Force, told NEWSWEEK that the Marines' use of "precision" weaponry ensured that "90 to 95 percent" of Iraqis killed inside the city were combatants. But residents of Fallujah insist that many victims were women and children. Across the street from one building where we are held is a house with a collapsed roof under which, fighters tell us, 15 members of a single family had been crushed to death. "People buried the dead in their homes, because the snipers would kill them if they went outside," I am told by Gen. Mohammed Abdul-Latif, the commander of the Fallujah Brigade, who came to Jolan to negotiate with the fighters for our release. He tells me that at least 950 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the three weeks of fighting.

The mujahed named Mohammed who detained us is a stocky, handsome man in his early 20s from a well-to-do Fallujah family. He had been studying foreign languages at Baghdad University when the U.S. military toppled Saddam Hussein last year, and he says he initially supported Saddam's overthrow, but "the Americans should have left Iraq immediately [after the war]." When the Marines invaded last month, Mohammed was one of hundreds of neighborhood men and teenagers--including many former Iraqi soldiers--who answered the call to arms from local mosques. "How would you feel if French soldiers or Arab soldiers invaded your city, and killed your friends, your family?" he asks as he and his brother serve us kebab, pita and tea on the richly carpeted floor of a cousin's spacious home. "We fought in the streets, in the houses, on the rooftops. Even the Marines' tanks and helicopters could not stop us. My closest friends died beside me." He says that his mother and his brother were shot dead by Marine snipers, and he scoffs at the portrayal of insurgents as "terrorists." Mohammed and his comrades tell us that the prisoner-abuse scandal wasn't a surprise. "We knew what was going on inside Abu Ghraib all along," claims one young fighter with a badly burned hand. "You Americans can't do anything good."

The resistance fighters inside Fallujah, said to number about 2,000, are divided into several factions. Four powerful Islamic leaders inside the city exert a measure of authority over most of the mujahedin; Mohammed and his group are loyal to a revered imam who preaches at one of the city's bigger mosques. It was this imam, we learn, who gave orders that any foreigner who enters Jolan without his permission should be thoroughly questioned. But other mujahedin in the city aren't beholden to any of the local clerics. These include foreign fighters and hard-line local jihadis, men who share the same inflexible hatred of the West as those who beheaded the American contractor Nick Berg last week. Mohammed tells us we were "lucky" that his group, rather than the hard-liners, had arrested us. "They are in the neighborhood," he warns us.

Mohammed and the other fighters we talk to make it clear that the quiet in Fallujah isn't likely to last. Although General Abdul-Latif and his Fallujah Brigade managed to enforce an uneasy ceasefire, the U.S. Marines who surround the city have demanded that the resistance give up its heavy weapons, turn over all those involved in the Blackwater murders and expel foreign fighters from the city. Those demands, all the insurgents we spoke to agree, are unacceptable. "We won't stop fighting until the occupation ends," Mohammed says. After eight hours, the resistance finally accepts that we are journalists, not spies, and allows us to leave. My colleague and I lie down in the back of a battered car and are driven through town--past crowds of heavily armed mujahedin--to safety at the imam's mosque. "You have remained in our city much longer than you expected," the cleric says apologetically, smiling and clasping our hands. There isn't any talk about staying around for supper.