Mohammed Imad Khazalalrubai does not appear in any deck of cards or on any list of Iraq’s most wanted. Until last week, the 16-year-old was an ordinary student in an affluent suburb of Baghdad. But it took only minutes to transform him from a bystander to American rule in Iraq to a willing recruit for the resistance movement, vowing to kill U.S. soldiers.
As he and his brother Zaid drove home after collecting their family’s monthly rations of flour, rice and cooking oil, they came upon a hastily established American checkpoint, part of an outer security cordon thrown up during a raid on a neighbor’s house. The boys were nudging their white sedan through a crowd of onlookers when suddenly, according to witnesses, soldiers in a humvee 150 yds. away opened up, firing high-velocity rounds through the windshield of the boys’ car.
When the firing stopped, Zaid, 13, opened a door and stuck his head out to shake off the shattered glass. At that point, Mohammed says, a single American bullet killed him. “My brother’s blood will not go for nothing,” Mohammed screamed in anguish two days later, his wounds from the shooting still swathed in bandages. “I’ll take revenge on those American sons of b______.”
For months now, U.S. officials have banked on the capture of Saddam Hussein to quell the attacks against American soldiers. But as Mohammed’s story illustrates, resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq goes beyond loyal remnants of the old regime. The non-Baathist components of the opposition include nationalists, tribalists and ordinary citizens offended by the armed presence of foreigners and especially by the occupiers’ perceived power abuses. Other resisters include non-Iraqi Arabs, possibly jihadis who have traveled to Iraq to take on the U.S., as well as fundamentalist Shi’ites.
While taking Saddam down may demoralize his followers, it would not necessarily dull the anger of these other parties. In fact, many Iraqis believe it would provoke them to stronger action. “Saddam’s being caught or killed isn’t good for the Americans,” says Marouf Sami Noori, brother-in-law of fugitive Taha Yassin Ramadan, Saddam’s Vice President. “There are many people who would like to fight against the Americans, but if they fight now, they’ll be considered Saddam’s people. So the resistance will be stronger if Saddam is captured or killed.”
The most pervasive threat emerges from a fierce nationalism and a deep-rooted tribal instinct that interpret every U.S. search or arrest as an insult. That feeling is perhaps strongest in Fallujah and Ramadi, cities west of Baghdad where some of the most deadly attacks on American troops have come. These cities fall within the so-called Sunni triangle, where U.S. officials believe Saddam and most of his followers are hiding. But locals deny that the attacks have any connection with Saddam.
“We have no relation whatsoever with the old regime. Most of us were imprisoned and humiliated in Saddam’s time,” says Fallujah’s Abu Bilal al-Fallujah, whose cousin launched at least two attacks on American convoys before he was killed in an explosion at the city’s central mosque in June. “The problems started with the way the Americans ignored our ideas and customs. They humiliated us; they occupied our mosque. Of course, I will seek revenge if I am insulted.”
That sentiment is spreading. After the Baghdad raid that left Zaid Khazalalrubai and four bystanders dead, tribal leaders from around the country descended on the home of Rabiah Mohammed al-Habib, a prominent tribal prince whose house was the target of the raid. (U.S. forces mistakenly thought Saddam might be there.) The visitors offered help in organizing retaliatory attacks against American troops. “My people are asking ‘What action should we take?'” says al-Habib. “I’m trying to calm them down. I’m telling them that the Americans are probably desperate. But I cannot control the feeling of my people at the moment.”
A second threat to U.S. forces comes from volunteer fighters crossing into Iraq from Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. “For those terrorist groups that have clearly stated they are going to conduct operations against the U.S., this is the place to come,” said Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq. Their entry is hard to prevent.
“The borders are big and porous,” notes a senior U.S. intelligence official. “If we had any ability to monitor the influx, they wouldn’t be in there.” U.S. officials say they can’t estimate the strength of such fighters. “We don’t have the ability to monitor that,” says the senior intelligence official. “We don’t have regular numbers.” But foreigners certainly have been among those killed in military raids. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, testifying before Congress last week, referred to a recent raid in western Iraq in which Egyptian, Sudanese and Syrian passports were found on the bodies of dead fighters.
American commanders also worry about the possible dangers posed by a new “army” being mobilized by renegade religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, son of the late Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who is revered by Iraq’s Shi’ites for his struggle against Saddam. Two weeks ago at Friday prayers, al-Sadr declared his opposition to the American-appointed governing council and the American occupation and announced the formation of a “peaceful” army to defend Iraqi dignity, culture and sovereignty. He has since softened his rhetoric, saying the force will be armed only with “faith” and that it will restrict itself to public works.
Al-Sadr’s grandstanding is partly politics; he is trying to strengthen his position among Shi’ite leaders. But few doubt his pulling power — hundreds of thousands regularly attend his sermons — or dismiss the implied threat of an Iranian-style Islamic uprising.
As they struggle with myriad threats, U.S. officials must tread the impossibly fine line between eliminating enemies and creating new ones. In Tarmiyah, a town north of Baghdad, locals say American heavy-handedness has provoked them to take potshots at the U.S. convoys that regularly travel a nearby highway.
“Our people loved the Americans as a people, even before the war, but now they do not,” says an elder who declines to give his name. “The resistance does exist, but it’s not to protect Saddam or avenge Uday and Qusay. The resistance belongs to the community.” A community that’s hard to fit on just one deck of cards.