‘The liberation of Baghdad is not far away’
By Alix de la Grange
BAGHDAD – On the eve of the so-called transfer of sovereignty to the new Iraqi caretaker government on June 30, former Saddam Hussein generals turned members of the elite of the Iraqi resistance movement have abandoned their clandestine positions for a while to explain their version of events and talk about their plans. According to these Ba’ath officials, “the big battle” in Iraq is yet to take place.
“The Americans have prepared the war, we have prepared the post-war. And the transfer of power on June 30 will not change anything regarding our objectives. This new provisional government appointed by the Americans has no legitimacy in our eyes. They are nothing but puppets.”
Why have these former officers waited so long to come out of their closets? “Because today we are sure we’re going to win.”
Palestine Hotel, Tuesday, 3pm. One week after a formal request, the prospect of talking with the resistance is getting slimmer. We reach a series of dead ends – until a man we have never met before discreetly approaches our table. “You still want to meet members of the resistance?” He speaks to my associate, a female Arab journalist who has been to Iraq many times. Talk is brief. “We meet tomorrow morning at the Babel Hotel,” the man says before disappearing. Against all expectations, this contact seems to be more reliable than the ones we have previously tried.
Hotel Babel, Wednesday, 9am. At the entrance of the cybercafe, mobbed by foreign mercenaries, the man we saw the day before lays it down: “Tomorrow, 10 o’clock, al-Saadoun Street, in front of the Palestine. Come without your driver.”
We arrive at the meeting place on Thursday morning by taxi. The contact is there. After a brief “Salam Alekum” we get into his car. “Where are we going?” No reply.
We drive for more than two hours. In Baghdad, even when traffic is not totally blocked by military checkpoints, traffic jams are permanent. In one year, more than 300,000 vehicles have been smuggled into the country. Every other car has no license plate and most drivers don’t even know what “driver’s license” means.
“We’ll be there soon. Do you know Baghdad?”, asks our man. The answer is clearly no. To get oriented in the sprawling city, one must circulate freely, and on foot. With criminal behavior spreading like a virus, a wave of kidnappings, the 50 or 60 daily attacks against the occupation forces and the indiscriminate response of the American military, there’s hardly any incentive to do any walking.
The car stops in an alley, near a minibus with tinted windows. One of its doors opens. On board, there are three men and a driver carefully scrutinizing all the streets and houses around us. If we don’t know at all what we are confronted with, our interlocutors seem to know very well who they’re talking to. “Before any discussions, we don’t want any doubts on your part about our identities,” they say, while extracting some papers from inside a dusty plastic bag: identity cards, military IDs and several photos showing them in uniform beside Saddam Hussein. They are two generals and a colonel of the disbanded Iraqi army, now on the run for many months, chased by the coalition’s intelligence services.
“We would like to rectify some information now circulating in the Western media, that’s why we took the initiative of meeting you.” Our discussion lasts for more than three hours.
Back to the fall of Baghdad
“We knew that if the United States decided to attack Iraq, we would have no chance faced with their technological and military power. The war was lost in advance, so we prepared the post-war. In other words: the resistance. Contrary to what has been largely said, we did not desert after American troops entered the center of Baghdad on April 5, 2003. We fought a few days for the honor of Iraq – not Saddam Hussein – then we received orders to disperse.” Baghdad fell on April 9: Saddam and his army where nowhere to be seen.
“As we have foreseen, strategic zones fell quickly under control of the Americans and their allies. For our part, it was time to execute our plan. Opposition movements to the occupation were already organized. Our strategy was not improvised after the regime fell.” This plan B, which seems to have totally eluded the Americans, was carefully organized, according to these officers, for months if not years before March 20, 2003, the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The objective was “to liberate Iraq and expel the coalition. To recover our sovereignty and install a secular democracy, but not the one imposed by the Americans. Iraq has always been a progressive country, we don’t want to go back to the past, we want to move forward. We have very competent people,” say the three tacticians. There will be of course no names as well as no precise numbers concerning the clandestine network. “We have sufficient numbers, one thing we don’t lack is volunteers.”
The lethal offensive of the American troops in Fallujah in March has been the turning point as far as the resistance is concerned. The indiscriminate pillage by American soldiers during their search missions (according to many witnesses) and the sexual humiliation inflicted to prisoners, including Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, have only served to magnify the anger felt by most Iraqis. “There’s no more trust, it will be hard to regain it.” According to these resistance leaders, “We have reached the point of no return.”
This is exactly the point of view of a Shi’ite woman we had met two days earlier – a former undercover opposition militant against Saddam: “The biggest mistake of the occupation forces was to despise our traditions and our culture. They are not satisfied with having bombed our infrastructure, they tried to destroy our social system and our dignity. And this we cannot allow. The wounds are deep and the healing will take long. We prefer to live under the terror of one of our own than under the humiliation of a foreign occupation.”
According to Saddam’s generals, “more than a year after the beginning of the war, insecurity and anarchy still dominate the country. Because of their incapacity to control the situation and to maintain their promises, the Americans have antagonized the population as a whole. The resistance is not limited to a few thousand activists. Seventy-five percent of the population supports us and helps us, directly and indirectly, volunteering information, hiding combatants or weapons. And all this despite the fact that many civilians are caught as collateral damage in operations against the coalition and collaborators.”
Who do they regard as “collaborators”? “Every Iraqi or foreigner who works with the coalition is a target. Ministries, mercenaries, translators, businessmen, cooks or maids, it doesn’t matter the degree of collaboration. To sign a contract with the occupier is to sign your death certificate. Iraqi or not, these are traitors. Don’t forget that we are at war.”
The resistance’s means of dissuasion led to an ever-shrinking list of candidates to key government posts proposed by the coalition, and this in a country ravaged by 13 years of embargo and two wars where unemployment has been a crucial problem. The ambient chaos is not the only reason preventing people from resuming professional activity. If the Americans, quickly overwhelmed by the whole situation, had to take the decision to reinstate former Ba’athists (policemen, secret service agents, military, officials at the oil ministry), this does not apply to everybody. The majority of victims of administrator L Paul Bremer’s decree of May 16, 2003 applying the de-Ba’athification of Iraq is still clandestine.
Essentially composed by Ba’athists (Sunni and Shi’ite), the resistance currently regroups “all movements of national struggle against the occupation, without confessional, ethnic or political distinction. Contrary to what you imagine in the West, there is no fratricide war in Iraq. We have a united front against the enemy. From Fallujah to Ramadi, and including Najaf, Karbala and the Shi’ite suburbs of Baghdad, combatants speak with a single voice. As to the young Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, he is, like ourselves, in favor of the unity of the Iraqi people, multiconfessional and Arab. We support him from a tactical and logistical perspective.”
Every Iraqi region has its own combatants and each faction is free to choose its targets and its modus operandi. But as time goes by, their actions are increasingly coordinated. Saddam’s generals insist there is no rivalry among these different organizations, except on one point: which one will eliminate the largest number of Americans.
Weapons of choice
“The attacks are meticulously prepared. They must not last longer than 20 minutes and we operate preferably at night or very early in the morning to limit the risks of hitting Iraqi civilians.” They anticipate our next question: “No, we don’t have weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, we have more than 50 million conventional weapons.” By the initiative of Saddam, a real arsenal was concealed all over Iraq way before the beginning of the war. No heavy artillery, no tanks, no helicopters, but Katyushas, mortars (which the Iraqis call haoun), anti-tank mines, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other Russian-made rocket launchers, missiles, AK 47s and substantial reserves of all sorts of ammunition. And the list is far from being extensive.
But the most efficient weapon remains the Kamikazes. A special unit, composed of 90% Iraqis and 10% foreign fighters, with more than 5,000 solidly-trained men and women, they need no more than a verbal order to drive a vehicle loaded with explosives.
What if the weapons’ reserves dwindle? “No worries, for some time we have been making our own weapons.” That’s all they are willing to disclose.
“Yes, we have executed the four American mercenaries in Fallujah last March. On the other hand, the Americans soldiers waited for four hours before removing the bodies, while they usually do it in less than 20 minutes. Two days earlier, a young married woman had been arbitrarily arrested. For the population of Fallujah, this was the last straw, so they expressed their full rage against the four cadavers. The Americans, they did much worse to living Iraqi prisoners.”
The suicide attack which provoked the death of Akila al-Hashimi, a diplomat and member of the Iraqi Governing Council on September 22, 2003, was also perpetrated by the resistance, as well as the car bomb which killed the president of the Iraqi executive body Ezzedin Salim in May 17 this year at the entrance of the Green Zone (which Iraqis call the Red Zone, due to the number of resistance offensives).
They are also responsible for the kidnapping of foreigners. “We are aware that the kidnapping of foreign nationals blemishes our image, but try to understand the situation. We are forced to control the identity of people circulating in our territory. If we have proof that they are humanitarians or journalists we release them. If they are spies, mercenaries or collaborators we execute them. On this matter, let’s be clear, we are not responsible for the death of Nick Berg, the American who was beheaded.”
As to the attack against the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 20, 2003: “We have never issued an order to attack the UN and we had a lot of esteem towards the Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello [special UN representative who died in the attack], but it’s not impossible that the authors of this suicide attack come from another resistance group. As we have explained, we don’t control everything. And we must not forget that the UN is responsible for the 13 years of embargo we have endured.”
What about the October 27, 2003 attack against the Red Cross in Baghdad? “This had nothing to do with us, we always had a lot of respect for this organization and the people who work for them. What would be our interest to attack one of the few institutions which has been helping the Iraq population for years? We know that people from Fallujah have claimed this attack, but we can assure you they are not part of the resistance. And we also add: for political and economic reasons, there are many who have an interest in discrediting us.”
After June 30
“Resolution 1546 adopted on June 8 is nothing but one more web of lies to the eyes of many Iraqis. First, because it officially ends the occupation by foreign troops while authorizing the presence of a multinational force under American command, without stipulating the date of their removal. Second, because the Iraqi right to veto important military operations, demanded by France, Russia and China, was rejected. Washington has conceded only a vague notion of partnership with the Iraqi authority and did not think of anything in case of disagreement. Iraqis are not fools, the maintenance of American troops in Iraq after June 30 and the aid money they will get from the American Congress leave no doubt over the identity of who will really rule the country.”
What about a possible role for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?
“If NATO intervenes, it’s not to help our people, but to help the Americans leave this quagmire. If they wanted our well-being, they would have made a move before,” say the three officers while looking at their watches. It’s late and we have largely exceeded our allotted time.
“What American troops cannot do today, NATO troops won’t be able to do later on. Everyone must know: Western troops will be regarded by Iraqis as occupiers. This is something that George W Bush and his faithful ally Tony Blair will do well to think about. If they have won a battle, they have not won the war yet. The great battle is still to begin. The liberation of Baghdad is not far away.”