Ultimately, the meeting leaves the impression of a resistance that is ideologically and organizationally fragmented, with tactics and tools but no clear strategy. The fighters seem to be less a movement than a collection of shamed and angry men with access to military training, weapons and targets.
And the masked man's allegiance to Saddam is not particularly surprising. Some reports in the Western press have portrayed the resistance as anti-Saddam nationalists, contradicting Donald Rumsfeld's assertions that they are "dead enders," loyal to the vanquished regime. But among the fighters and resistance supporters and Sunni in general I talked with, the former dictator is actually quite popular. This phenomenon may be difficult to explain, given Saddam's atrocities, but it is real.
One former Fedayeen fighter I interviewed loves Saddam Hussein despite having been jailed for a month and severely tortured by his police. Now this man is largely apolitical but he supports the resistance in principle (a family member was active but is now jailed, and other kin have stored weapons for the underground). When Saddam was captured the former torture victim wept openly, and in conversation he will defend the ex-dictator to the end.
An hour outside of Baghdad lies the city of al Falluja--a k a "the wild west." This heavily Sunni desert region is one of Iraq's most religious and culturally traditional areas. Here, Iraq's large clans exercise considerable power. This is also one of the very worst places to be a US soldier. IEDs and mortar attacks are common, and in the first two weeks of January, guerrillas near Falluja shot down three helicopters.
A series of American units have cycled through Falluja, but since September the city has been the responsibility of a battalion from the elite 82nd Airborne. To see their counterinsurgency methods up close, I have "embedded" at forward operating base Volturno. Known informally among the troops as "camp dreamland," the base was once a middle-class resort. Its little bungalows are now sandbagged barracks, and the artificial lake is half empty but still visited by exotic birds. Not all of the soldiers' time is spent lakeside, however; they also take frequent trips to town.
It's a cool late afternoon, and "Operation Dozer"--a large-scale incursion into Falluja--is taking longer than expected, much longer.
"Man, this is turning into a cluster fuck," quips one of the paratroopers. Instead of lasting two or three hours, Dozer has lasted all day. And when the 82nd Airborne spends any extended period of time in Falluja, they get attacked.