|On May 11th, the day after the United States marines withdrew from the streets of Falluja, about five hundred clerics, tribal leaders, businessmen, and military and police officers gathered in the dusty courtyard in front of the wide stone stairs that lead to the entrance of Rahma Hospital. The hospital is under construction, and during the Americans’ siege of the city, which lasted for most of April, it served as a storehouse for weapons, medical and food supplies, and sandbags. A rough lectern had been placed halfway up the stairs, and was flanked by flags and banners inscribed with phrases extolling the martyrs of the siege. The dignitaries sat in white plastic chairs under a big tent that shaded them from the midday sun, clapping politely and drinking from cans of soda and bottles of water, while poets read work they had prepared for the occasion. Several of the poets were from other cities in Iraq, including Najaf, and a recurrent theme that afternoon was the bond between Sunnis and Shiites. Falluja is one of the most religiously conservative towns in the “Sunni triangle,” but the recent confluence of the Shiite uprising led by Moqtada al-Sadr and the siege of Falluja by the marines had created a curious alliance that transcended religious differences. A local poet recited a poem called “The Falluja Tragedy.” His accent made his words barely intelligible, at least to me, but I could make out these phrases: “Falluja is a tall date palm. She never accepts anybody touching her dates. She will shoot arrows into the eyes of those who try to taste her. This is Falluja, your bride, O Euphrates! She will never fall in love with anyone but you. . . . Americans dug in the ground and pulled out the roots of the date palm.”
A young boy from Najaf wearing a pressed white shirt tucked neatly into bluejeans walked up to the lectern, and the microphone was lowered to accommodate him. The boy raised his right arm, pointing his index finger at the sky. “I came to praise the heroes of Falluja!” he shouted. His poem ended with calls to God—“Ya Allah! Ya allah!”—that he screamed out. Then he began to sob, and he was led away, wiping his tears. The men in the front row of plastic chairs embraced and kissed him, and he returned to the lectern and recited another poem. This time, he brandished a Kalashnikov that was as long as he was tall.
The most distinguished guest in the tent was Sheikh Dhafer al-Obeidi, a man in his late thirties with narrow eyes and a thick black beard. He sat regally in the front row, wearing a white scarf and a translucent gold-rimmed cape that he had draped over his shoulders. Falluja’s most powerful cleric, Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi, had recently given Sheikh Dhafer day-to-day authority over the city. Sheikh Dhafer was the last speaker. He described the event as “the wedding day for Falluja.” Muslims had not felt such joy, he said, since Saladin liberated Jerusalem in the twelfth century.
The Marines’ farewell visit to Falluja the previous day had been billed as a joint patrol with a new Iraqi security force, the Falluja Brigade. It was a hasty affair, lasting only about half an hour, and something of an anticlimax to Operation Vigilant Resolve, the attack on the city launched on April 5th by the First Marine Expeditionary Force after the killing and mutilation of four Blackwater security guards. Hospital officials in Falluja say that at least six hundred Iraqis died during the subsequent siege.
The American withdrawal was a controversial experiment in Iraqi autonomy. Falluja was the only city in Iraq that was surrendered to a local military force with strong connections to the previous regime. This was, essentially, a reversal of the policy that had been in effect since the previous April, when U.S. Army troops arrived in Falluja, two weeks after they took Baghdad, thirty-five miles to the east. But Falluja was a far different place now than it had been a year ago. In the first few months after Saddam’s government fell, the city had been fairly stable internally. Religious and tribal leaders had appointed their own civil management council before the Americans arrived. Falluja did not suffer from looting, and government buildings were protected. Tight tribal bonds helped maintain order. Early in the occupation, however, a demonstration protesting the Americans’ takeover of a school building had turned bloody, and a cycle of attacks and retaliation began, with the resistance increasing in sophistication. Local fighters were joined by rogue mujahideen and jihadis from other Arab countries, and, as in the rest of Iraq, the violence and disorder spiralled out of control.
The accord between the Americans and the resistance was brokered by the Marines, members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and several groups of Iraqis, not all of them with the same agenda, although there were basic areas of agreement. “Many people came in asking to be intermediaries,” a member of the C.P.A., who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “We wanted the individuals who had killed the contractors, and we wanted heavy weapons turned in, and we needed to be able to move inside and outside the city. They wanted the hospital opened and the old bridge cleared and the curfew changed so they could make it to evening prayers in the mosque. And we discussed what to do about foreign fighters, or ‘Arab guests,’ as they called them.”
The men who killed the contractors were not turned in, and very few weapons were surrendered, but the Americans agreed to a deal nonetheless. The fact that the Falluja Brigade included several former Baathists and radical Sunni fighters whom the Marines had recently been battling was considered a small price to pay for peace. Power had been turned over to local authorities who had legitimacy. And the marines claimed that they were still in control. A Coalition press release noted that “Fallujans reportedly waved to them”—the marines—“as they made their way in and out of the city” on May 10th. This was apparently a reference to the thousands of residents who came into the streets to celebrate. Fighters in the backs of pickup trucks shot weapons into the air, songs were sung, and a sheep was slaughtered. An Iraqi officer wearing the uniform of the old Republican Guard handed out forms to men who had lined up to join the Falluja Brigade.
The four Blackwater security guards were killed at a large intersection on Falluja’s main street. It was once called Habbaniya Street, but the name was changed to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin Street in March, after the Israelis assassinated Yassin, the co-founder of Hamas. When I was there in May, laborers with scarves protecting their faces from dust stood around, waiting to be picked up for day jobs. Anti-American graffiti was scrawled in English on the walls of nearby buildings. Young boys who sold bananas and Kleenex were acting as an early-warning system for the city. I knew several people who had been spotted by them. The laborers, who were armed with shovels, pipes, and pickaxes, were on hand to enforce street justice.
The boys gathered around me and the laborers removed their kaffiyehs from their faces to talk. Several of them said that they had witnessed the attack, and they described how two S.U.V.s had stopped at a red light and mujahideen had opened fire on them from other vehicles. A mujahid had shouted, “I avenged my brother who was killed by the Americans!” and the assailants left. The gruesome scene of the mob mutilating the bodies, burning them and beating them until they were partially dismembered, was captured on film by local cameramen. (There is a term for this kind of thing. In Iraqi dialect, the Arabic word sahl, which literally means dragging a body down the street, has grown to mean any sort of public massacre.) The images were broadcast over and over again on Arab and Western television.
In the Jolan neighborhood, on the northwest edge of town, near the bridge where the charred bodies of two of the Blackwater security guards were strung up, people were sorting through the rubble of their homes. One man stood in the center of an immense crater while his children played on a pile of bricks that had once made up their house. Several men asked me to photograph the damage, and as I was doing so a white sedan pulled up and two men whose faces were covered with checkered scarves demanded to know who I was. They were worried about spies, they said. Mujahideen paranoia was making it impossible for Western journalists to work in Falluja. I was able to avoid being taken hostage or killed because I speak Arabic and have olive skin and black hair and, when asked, I said that I was Bosnian. I didn’t carry my American passport into Falluja. More important, I was travelling with a Palestinian who had helped the resistance leaders during the fighting. This reassured the men in the white sedan.
Several people in Jolan said that the foreign fighters—Saudis, Tunisians, Moroccans, Yemenis, and Lebanese, directed by Syrian militants—had been crucial to the defense of the neighborhood. The groups of mujahideen who hung around mosques included men who looked to me like Arabs from the Gulf. Most of them were dark, with angular features, and they had long, well-groomed beards. Their dishdashas were short, in the Wahhabi style, ending a little below their knees. Friends of mine who had been held by mujahideen told me they had heard men speaking with accents from the Gulf, Syria, and North Africa.
The foreign mujahideen still in Jolan imposed strict Islamic codes of behavior on the neighborhood. They harassed Iraqis who smoked cigarettes or drank water using their left hand, which is considered impure. They banned alcohol, Western films, makeup, hairdressers, “behaving like women”—i.e., homosexuality—and even dominoes in the coffeehouses. Men found publicly drunk had been flogged, and I was told of a dozen men who had been beaten and imprisoned for selling drugs.
The Nazal neighborhood, in the southern part of the city, had also been a battleground during the siege, and I met a former brigadier general in the Iraqi Army, Abu Muhammad, there. We sat in the guest hall of his grand house, watching the news on television while his three young sons wrestled on the sofa. Abu Muhammad had lost his job when Paul Bremer dissolved the army. When the war ended, he said, “we expected things to improve, but everything became worse: electricity, water, sewage.” Speakers in the mosques began to talk openly about jihad. “This attracted foreign Arabs who felt constrained by their own regimes,” Abu Muhammad said, “and of course there were neighboring countries that supported them. Nobody in Falluja opposed the resistance, and many different resistance groups came in. Weapons were very available. The Baath Party had distributed weapons, and after the fall of Saddam’s government soldiers and security personnel took their weapons home. People here grow up with weapons. They are part of our personality.”
When the siege of Falluja started, in early April, Abu Muhammad said, “people here were monitoring American movements and had the upper hand. They had military experience, and they prepared themselves for the fight.” Highway 10, the road that connects Baghdad to Jordan and the western part of the country, runs through Falluja, and it was virtually shut down. Fighters set up roadblocks and searched cars for foreigners, military convoys were attacked, and trucks were hijacked and robbed. Abu Muhammad said that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the siege incited sympathy for the resistance. He compared the Al Jazeera correspondent to a sports commentator: “He encouraged people to support one team against the other. And he raised the spirits of fighters.” Abu Muhammad was not optimistic about the future of Falluja. “It’s like Afghanistan, where gangs rule, and Mafias and Taliban,” he said. “If they decide somebody is a spy, they will kill him. There is no legal procedure. Imams who left during the fighting were prevented from returning to their mosques.” He feared that differences between mujahideen groups would lead to further violence.
Several councils, committees, political parties, and religious organizations were competing for influence in Falluja, among them the local branch of the Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most powerful Sunni organizations in the country. It is led by Harith al-Dhari, who is both a religious and a tribal leader and has been vociferous in his opposition to the American occupation. The Association of Muslim Scholars, which is based in the Abdel-Aziz Al Samarrai mosque, had its own mujahideen units during the fighting. The mosque’s green dome was dotted with bullet holes and there was a big hole in the tower.
The Association of Muslim Scholars’ main competition is the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has offices in an old theatre across from the central market in Falluja. The Party dominates the town council, but its members were not active during the fighting, and some even left the city, earning the contempt of many Fallujans. Another organization, the forty-five-member Falluja Provisional Authority Council, was concerned mostly with negotiating with the Americans about the reconstruction of the city. Its headquarters, on Falluja’s main street, was surrounded by huge concrete security barriers covered with resistance posters.
By far the most important seat of authority in town is the Al Hadhra Al Muhammadiya mosque, led by Sheikh Dhafer. Falluja is known as medinat al-masajid, the city of mosques, of which it has at least eighty, and the Hadhra is small and faded compared to others. It is, nonetheless, the city’s de-facto command-and-control center. An informal committee of religious, tribal, and political leaders based in the mosque confers on strategy and advises the mayor and the town council. During the fighting in April, the loudspeaker in the mosque’s tower broadcast bulletins encouraging resistance, disseminating news, and giving directions to fighters about which front they should report to. I bought several DVDs in Falluja that showed fighters armed with Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades congregating inside the mosque and loading supplies into pickup trucks parked in front of it. DVDs of this sort are used for recruitment purposes by the mujahideen, and they have soundtracks that, typically, begin with turgid chants mourning the victims of the occupation forces, accompanied by pictures of bleeding and dead Iraqi children. Then the music becomes more reggae-like, and there are images of mujahideen firing mortars or exploding roadside bombs beneath American vehicles. One DVD showed heavy machine guns, pistols, grenades, satellite phones, walkie-talkies, video-rental cards, an airline itinerary printed from a Hotmail account, and plane tickets—all spread out on the carpet of someone’s diwan, or guest room. The booty was identified as having been taken from the vehicles of the four slain Blackwater guards.
Sheikh Dhafer’s many powers include the giving or withholding of clearances for journalists to work in the city, and I had to get a piece of paper from him that allowed me to move about. Journalists who had not done so ended up being held by armed gangs. The rusted gate in front of the Hadhra mosque was covered with announcements, including one from the qaimmaqamiya (an old Ottoman word for town hall) that gave instructions about what documents were necessary to apply for compensation for martyrs, wounded people, and damaged vehicles. A tall palm tree provided a bit of shade on a path to the mosque office, where I removed my shoes and left them by the door. The office was sparsely furnished, and I sat on an old sofa and drank a glass of water and ate some candies that an attendant thrust at me. There were several representatives of Sheikh Dhafer in the office, and visitors streamed in. Each man who entered the room said, “assalamu aleikum,” or “peace be upon you,” and everyone stood up and answered, “wa aleikum salam,” or “and upon you peace.” We would then shake hands and greet each other in the western-Iraqi way: a kiss on the cheek followed by three kisses on the shoulder. A twelve-year-old boy named Saad was introduced as an intrepid sniper. He was hugged and kissed and congratulated for being a batal, a hero. Saad smiled proudly. He had a hoarse, adult voice and was insolent to the older, bigger boys in the room.
Major General Jassim Muhammad Saleh, the former Iraqi Army officer who was appointed to head the Falluja Brigade when the accord with the Americans was reached, came by, looking elegant in a white dishdasha and a white scarf. He exchanged greetings with the guests in the increasingly crowded office, and briefed them on the latest political events, barking gruffly in clipped military style, his jowls shaking, as he fingered yellow prayer beads. General Saleh is a well-connected member of an important family in Falluja, and he had made a dramatic show of taking over the city at the end of April, but he turned out to have been an unfortunate choice from the American point of view. Rumors soon spread that he was a member of Saddam’s Republican Guard and had been involved in crushing the Kurdish and Shiite uprising that erupted early in 1991, after the first Gulf War. He was soon replaced by Muhammad Latif, a former Army officer who had been jailed by Saddam. Latif wasn’t from Falluja, and he continued to live in Baghdad, but his shortcomings in terms of local credibility were offset by the fact that he didn’t look like a reconstituted Baathist. My Palestinian guide, among others, said that Latif was just a figurehead, although American military officials and reporters, to whom he liked to give interviews in his garden in Baghdad, portrayed him as a forceful leader. Saleh, meanwhile, conferred often with Sheikh Dhafer and the other authorities in the Hadhra mosque.
Sheikh Dhafer, in addition to being the imam of the mosque, was now also the director of Falluja’s amana al-ulia lilifta, the high council for fatwas, which was formed after Saddam’s government fell. The fatwa council is based in Baghdad and is led by a radical Sufi cleric. When I asked Dhafer if he was the real leader of the city, he smiled disingenuously. “I am just a simple man who lived through the suffering of Falluja,” he said. I told him I had heard that he was the architect of the victory over the Americans, and he grinned proudly but whispered, “Don’t mention that, for my security.”
At Friday prayers that week, the mosque was overflowing, and I took one of the prayer mats that had been spread outside. Sheikh Dhafer’s raspy, high-pitched voice came over loudspeakers. Following convention, his sermon began with a general discussion of religion, but it soon became political. “Everybody hates America now because of the policies of President Bush, and his own people condemn him, so what can we not do?” he asked. “What can we not say? What are the limits of our response?” Dhafer then turned to the subject of unruly mujahideen. “It’s a shame that people who claim they are mujahideen set up checkpoints and steal cars and kidnap people,” he said. “They do what the Americans do, forcing people to lie on the ground, spreading their legs. What religion is this?” Dhafer urged the mujahideen to be more pious.
After the noon prayer and sermon ended, I was inundated by invitations to lunch, and joined a businessman with connections to the mujahideen. The men of his family lined up at the entrance of their diwan to shake hands and welcome visitors. A plastic mat was spread on the floor and bowls of rice and meat were set out, surrounded by smaller bowls of sliced vegetables and chicken. Round bread was piled on the mat’s edge. We all sat cross-legged on the floor, and a spoon and a plate were ordered for the Western guest, out of respect for his presumed inability to eat with his hands directly from the bowls, like a civilized person. When I finally plunged my fist into the greasy rice, tearing shreds of meat and stuffing it into my mouth, the men exclaimed with pleasure. Thin glasses were brought out, nearly half-filled with sugar and dark tea. The room echoed with the sharp tinkling of spoons mixing the sugar, and we watched the American attacks on Najaf and Karbala on Al Jazeera.
My hosts showed me a leaflet that was circulating throughout the region. A blurry photocollage depicted a giant, spiderlike creature next to a pair of legs that belonged to a man in an American military uniform. The leaflet explained that the creature circles around Falluja, attacking Americans. It could run up to forty kilometres, screaming and biting. I had heard numerous fantastic stories like that. One told of a Kalashnikov that worked for four hours straight without reloading. An armory used by the mujahideen turned into a weapons cornucopia. Dead mujahideen were said to smell pleasantly of musk. “Unnatural things happened,” I was told over and over.
On May 27th, my Palestinian guide told me that three NBC journalists had been taken hostage in Falluja, and we drove over from Baghdad the next morning. By then, the NBC crew had been released, and marines were eying the city warily from behind two barricades and vehicles covered with camouflage netting. Several dozen members of the Falluja Brigade, police, and civilians crowded around the entrance to the Hadhra mosque. I asked a guard I recognized to tell me what was going on, and he said that two “spies” had been arrested: “They’re British or maybe German.”
Taghlub al-Alusi, a gentle old man, tall and dignified, with sharp lines on his face, who was the administrator of the mosque, was in sheikh Dhafer’s office with several other men. He was looking more worried than usual. A woman was sitting in a corner of the room, in front of a table covered with Styrofoam containers of food. She was very white, and young. Her face was swollen and her shirt had speckles of blood on it. A pale, tall, middle-aged man emerged from the bathroom and sat next to her. His face was spotted with red bruises, and he winced when he moved. His hands were trembling. Taghlub and another man were examining two German passports, turning them around and squinting at every page. The chief of police was seated across the table from the Germans, a chicken leg in his hand. His sixteen-year-old son, who wore a pistol on one side of his waist and a walkie-talkie on the other, was next to him, opposite a short, round man with layers of tape covering his nose. A baby-faced man in a tailored suit sat next to the man with the bandage. He was the mayor, and he was rehearsing a statement.
The German man was Uwe Sauermann, a fifty-five-year-old freelance journalist. The woman was his twenty-four-year-old assistant, Manya Schöche. They had driven to Falluja that morning after being warned not to go to Najaf because it was too dangerous. Sauermann had taken his hotel manager’s advice and put on a dishdasha as they entered town, but someone saw his face when their car was stopped at the intersection where the four contractors had been killed, and they were seized by six armed men, one of whom wore a policeman’s uniform, and accused of being an American general and a female soldier. A mob beat them with shovels, sticks, and rocks. Their translator, a Christian from Baghdad, who wore a cross, was hit in the back of the neck with a machete and his nose was broken. He was the short man with the tape on his nose.
Just as the Germans and their translator were about to be doused with gasoline, someone had pulled Sauermann into a car and put a plastic bag over his head, and—after more violence, during which a police car was destroyed—he and the other two hostages were brought to the Hadhra mosque, which was soon surrounded by men carrying RPGs and Kalashnikovs. Sheikh Dhafer, General Saleh, and Muhammad Latif, the putative head of the Falluja Brigade, were inside, but they thought the situation was becoming too volatile, and they left. The mosque’s “committee for the investigation of espionage” established that Sauermann and Schöche were indeed German journalists, and Abu Abdullah, a foreign mujahideen leader who marched in demanding the return of what he referred to as American spies, was rebuffed.
The translator, who came over and sat next to me, kept dabbing at hisnose, wiping blood away, and when the mayor told him to eat he said, in a nasal voice, “I can’t—I’ll throw up.” Sauermann and Schöche were taken into an office where local stringers for Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were preparing to film the mayor’s statement. They were seated on a sofa on either side of the mayor, who faced a camera and explained that it had all been a misunderstanding that could have been avoided if the Germans had checked in with his office in the first place. Sauermann was told that he could make a statement. “When I saw the pictures of American attacks on Falluja, I decided to come here,” he said in English, with a thick German accent. “Somebody shouted ‘Americaner! Americaner!’ and then people came and you know what happened next. Men with guns put a bag on my head like the Americans do.” He said that he was a friend of the Iraqi people. The mayor shook Sauermann’s hand and told him to recant his statement comparing the behavior of the mob to that of the Americans. “When I said they used a plastic bag, it didn’t mean that we have to compare the people of Falluja to the Americans,” Sauermann said. “I only meant that the plastic bag itself reminded me of the Americans.”
Saad, the young sniper, who was serving refreshments, asked me if Schöche was Sauermann’s daughter. He didn’t understand how a woman could be travelling with a man not related to her. “Just give me five minutes alone with her,” he said, with a wistful smile.
Sauermann and Schöche were loaded into the mayor’s car, and about twenty members of the Falluja Brigade, in pickup trucks, accompanied them to the edge of town. The mayor, the police chief, and several aides and guards continued on to Baghdad, to the German embassy, a fortresslike place in the posh Mansour neighborhood. The mayor and the police chief went inside with the former captives, and I waited outside, chatting with two of the mayor’s assistants. They were worried about the political situation in Falluja. The foreign fighters and rogue mujahideen didn’t respect the authority of Sheikh Dhafer and the counsellors attached to the Hadhra mosque. They didn’t answer to Falluja’s tribal and religious establishment, and they had the muscle to do as they liked. The mayor’s assistants feared that Sheikh Dhafer and his colleagues could lose control of the town.
Iwent back to Falluja once more before I sensed that I was pressing my luck. On May 28th, the day the Germans were released, Sheikh Janabi, who in addition to being the senior cleric was the head of the Mujahideen Advisory Council, an ad-hoc group established to control the fighters in the city, had warned in his Friday sermon that any member of the foreign press who entered Falluja would be killed. Two weeks later, the bodies of six Shiite truck drivers who had been carrying supplies to the Falluja Brigade were discovered in the neighboring town of Ramadi. The truck drivers’ families claimed that they had been brutally murdered at the behest of Sheikh Janabi, although he denied having anything to do with it. Then the Pentagon announced that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was using Falluja as his headquarters, directing the assassins and suicide bombers who were turning the handover of Iraqi sovereignty into a bloodbath, and American aircraft bombed a house in Falluja that was alleged to be a Zarqawi safe house. At least twenty people were killed. On June 22nd, Kim Sun Il, a Korean translator who had been captured near Falluja, was beheaded, and a car and a garage in the Jubail neighborhood were hit by American rockets. Fighting broke out between the marines and resistance forces, and there was more bombing.
Speakers at a street demonstration in Falluja denied that Zarqawi was in the city. One of them, a young cleric, said that they did not need Zarqawi’s help. “The people of Falluja have men that love death the way the infidels love life!” he shouted. Sheikh Janabi said that the United States was using Zarqawi as a pretext to attack Iraqis, just as it had once used weapons of mass destruction. In any case, the airstrikes indicated that the Americans had pretty much abandoned the idea that the Falluja Brigade could do serious policework among resistance fighters, and certainly not among suspected terrorists. There were even reports that brigade members had joined the resistance when the new fighting broke out. As the handover to sovereignty began, the experiment with self-rule in Falluja looked more and more like a desperate measure that had been taken too late.