Tariq is an upper-middle-class Canadian medical student of Palestinian origin. He is a Muslim, fluent in Arabic and English, very smart, very young, brave and a bit naïve. He is an obsessive computer geek with a tendency toward pedantry on matters technological. Over the past two years he has spent several months in Palestine doing solidarity work.
In late June–against the advice of even a pro-resistance ex-army officer–Tariq went to Falluja, a city under siege and controlled by the mujahedeen. In early May the US Marines had essentially given control of the city to the insurgents. But on June 24 fighting flared up again when US planes bombed several houses and the Marines tried to enter the city. That was the day that Tariq headed to Falluja; his goal was to work in a civilian hospital.
Once in Falluja, he called in periodically over the next few days to myself and two other journalists with whom I share an otherwise empty hotel. After forty-eight hours with no word from him and just as we were about to hit the panic button, Tariq showed up at our hotel looking gaunt, smelling bad, wearing somebody else’s clothes and totally freaked out. His description of Falluja, tinged with Stockholm syndrome rationalizations, painted a picture of what can only be described as collective insanity. This is his story:
Tariq took a bus to Falluja, and before he could find the hospital he was intercepted by two mujahedeen fighters and taken to the US-trained Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, made up of Iraqi army veterans, many of them former Baathists. The ICDC–renamed the Iraqi National Guard after the June 30 transition–asked him some questions, then deposited him with two “plainclothes” guys who turned out to be leaders of a mujahedeen cell. In Falluja, everyone is mujahedeen: the ICDC, the US-trained Iraqi police and most of the people. More than anywhere else in Iraq, Falluja is tribal, religious and insular–it is a unique piece of the bigger picture.
The two men took charge of Tariq, telling him they had to “check him out” before he could do any medical work. For the rest of his days in Falluja he was in the custody of a resistance cell made up of about ten local Falluja boys who had military experience but very little education. They had started their organizing and training a year before the US invasion.
Tariq repeatedly requested placement in a hospital or clinic but was instead held by this cell and given a tour of life among the fighters. Every few hours he was moved from house to house in cars packed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and what seemed to be modified Sidewinder missiles (originally developed in the United States as air-to-air missiles, they had been taken from Iraqi warplanes by the mujahedeen, who now used them as shoulder-fired rockets).
“They were really nice guys,” says Tariq. At first the nice guys were convinced that Tariq was a spy. The group tried to check his encrypted, Linux-loaded laptop but couldn’t get it working. To save face, the local muj computer expert pretended it was all clear, but then snagged it for safekeeping.
On the first day that Tariq was held–but “not as a hostage,” as the muj cell kept telling him–they ran into a wounded fighter who had been grazed by a bullet. Tariq was able to patch him up with no problem. The cell began to trust the med student, plus they were very impressed that he had a stethoscope.
“They really are simple people. Really,” says Tariq, unwinding his tale in our hotel. “It’s all about trust and family. They have no idea about security, technology. It is just God, kin and the nation. It’s Alabama in Arabic. It really is.”
Even though Tariq gained the trust of the cell, they lied to him and manipulated him every day, taking his passport and his computer, never delivering him to the hospital as promised and often taking him to the frontlines against his will.
In Falluja the front is the north edge of town, along the Askari (“officers”) neighborhood, which ends at the edge of Iraq’s main east-west highway. In the desert on the other side of the highway were the US Marines in their armored vehicles. Most of the time the front was quiet, but at night it got busy. Tariq says that between five and seven muj fighters were being killed each day, usually by aerial bombing. During the first two days he was there the Marines attempted ground assaults, but thereafter mostly hung back (though ground combat does continue; on July 2 two more Marines died from fighting in Falluja). The muj would counterattack, but did not venture too far into the open desert. Tariq says that the whole time he was there, Falluja was buzzed by F-16 fighter jets and Predator drones. “The sound makes you crazy,” he says.
At night the cell would often head to the front to shoot at the Marines while dodging incoming US rounds. On most of these occasions they left Tariq behind, because he insisted he only wanted to do civilian work. After each night of fighting the cell would turn on a little mechanical stuffed monkey that played a jingle. This was one of the few things Tariq was allowed to videotape on his small digital camera.
The culture of the local fighters, as described by Tariq, is a closed, self-referential world. “They don’t even watch the news,” he tells us. “They just watch DVDs of sermons and speeches and muj music videos. Even the top guys had no idea what was going on in the rest of Iraq.”
Of course, Tariq wasn’t really sure who the top guys were. But there were hints. At one point in the fighting during Tariq’s visit the ICDC actually told the muj irregulars to move to the wings and give their heavy weapons to the ICDC. These US-trained professionals then did the bulk of the fighting against the would-be masters, the Marines. Tariq also says that the recent airstrikes on alleged safehouses in Falluja, such as the one on June 22 that killed about twenty people or the one on July 1 that killed four and wounded ten, were in fact precision strikes, in which spies had first dropped infrared beacons just before the attacks. Tariq says the victims were mostly fighters, though not connected to the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as the US military has claimed.
“People joked about Zarqawi,” says Tariq. “There were foreign fighters in Falluja, and some were killed in those strikes. But I don’t think Zarqawi was around. Falluja is very Iraqi.”
Quite disturbingly, Tariq says that Sharia law–or perhaps more accurately, a kind of Sharia lawlessness–was in full effect in Falluja, with hands cut off for theft, women kept away from men, etc. Even worse was the routine killing of spies and suspected spies. The leader of the cell that watched over Tariq confessed one such crime to him.
Tariq, at the edge of a couch in our hotel, reads his verbatim notes quoting the man: “We are all sinners, Tariq, all of us, I swear. The things we’ve done make us sinners. There was a Turkoman who ran a hotel; he had a wife and family. We thought he was a spy, so we beat him. We broke every bone in his body, but he wouldn’t confess. Then we cut a checkerboard in his back with a knife and poured salt on his wounds. He begged us to kill him but he would not confess. We knew by then that he was innocent. To kill him was an act of mercy. We are sinners all, Tariq.”
Despite the Islamic motifs of life in Falluja, the muj there are not Taliban purists. The commanders all drive nice cars, BMWs and Mercedes. “No one has clean clothes, but the top guys are immaculate. They’re just gangsters,” says Tariq, switching momentarily from a tone of respect to one of disgust.
What comes through most clearly in his tale is the desperation of being under siege. “At one point they brought in this young guy who was dead. That night his mother, who just went nuts with grief, came out and woke her three other sons and told them to go the the front, saying, ‘Your brother is not dead. Finish his work.’ ”
When Tariq tried to talk politics with the muj he found them surprisingly uninformed and self-contradictory. At times they would say Falluja will be the capital of a new Islamic state and that America will be destroyed. At other times they would admit that the only real solution to Iraq’s occupation was political and that their military effort had limited effect.
Eventually a lower-ranking muj stole $400 from Tariq. There was an inquest, with lots of swearing on the Koran. It was clear who the culprit was, but once the Koran had been sworn on it was between the thief and God. Nonetheless, the man of the house in which the cell was then staying had his honor at stake (hospitality is hugely important in Iraq). The man, also a fighter, sold off some weapons and demanded that Tariq take the money. Tariq refused, which infuriated and demeaned his host. Finally Tariq agreed to accept part of the sum, which he then quietly left in the host’s living room.
At this point Tariq negotiated the return of his passport and was finally allowed to work in a clinic (it was too dangerous to get to the main hospital). But by then the stress was getting to him. He told the cell commander that he needed to head back to Baghdad–to the hotel where I am staying, in fact–to think things over. The muj let him go but asked him to come back. Then they said they would bring his computer to the hotel (none of us were very happy about that idea).
“Tariq was kidnapped, but he is too proud to admit it,” said the ex-military man who advised him against going to Falluja. “And he put your lives in danger, without asking or warning.”
As I write this, Tariq is recuperating, oscillating between flippant jokes and humble epiphanies about Iraq, war, himself and the meaning of “solidarity” in a conflict where madness has become the norm.