Ali Hussein is Syrian. He used to live in a state-subsidized apartment complex on Baghdad’s Haifa Street, which was occupied mostly by Palestinians before the US invasion. When the government fell in April 2003, angry Baghdadis evicted the foreigners from the apartments and other properties they had been allowed to stay in by a government order that had frozen their rent at 1970s levels. Now Ali, 35, lives on the other side of the Tigris River on Rashid Street, where he has owned a factory since he moved to Baghdad almost two decades ago. His factory, he says, was attacked by looters during the postinvasion chaos, and it was then that he decided to send his family back to Syria and to join the jihad against US troops and, eventually, their Iraqi allies.
The January 30 elections to form a new government make no difference to Ali. As far as he’s concerned, anyone participating in them is a carpetbagger, an allusion to exiled politicians whom he expects to be the regime’s most prominent figures. “We don’t want the Americans to be in Iraq. They are occupiers, and so is anyone who came in with the Americans.” Ali is blase when I ask why the resistance was not effective during the elections. “We could not do that much during the elections because they put Iraqis in the polling stations–old women, old men. Those were foreigners who attacked those places,” he says, referring to the suicide bombers who hit the stations (though at least one attacker was an Iraqi police officer). He doesn’t need to point out that Baghdad was in a state of lockdown that day that made nonpedestrian movement impossible. I ask Ali about his nationality. “I feel as though I am Iraqi,” he says. “I have been here almost twenty years, and I do not want to go back to Syria.”
Haifa Street, the central Baghdad neighborhood where Ali commands a group of “about 120 mujahedeen,” as he puts it, has become synonymous with death. It is a hardscrabble area, where the British had an embassy for nearly eighty years before they were driven into the Green Zone soon after the current occupation settled in. American and Iraqi troops battle fighters on Haifa Street almost daily, with police caught in the crossfire. The foreign press corps doesn’t go anywhere close unless they are embedded with US troops.
Ali (not his real name) tries to appear calm, though he is clearly concerned, his eyes darting apprehensively around my hotel room. It always surprises me how nervous fighters are when I meet them–they assume that if I’m with the US military, I’ve got unseen backup somewhere. But the man who has set up the meeting is someone we both trust, and he knows that if anything goes awry, things will be very bad for his family. These are the grounds on which we’ve decided to meet. I try to put Ali at ease, but he makes me nervous. Hiba, the translator I work with, is downright frightened. It’s not hard to understand why–without prompting, Ali launches into tales of murder and mayhem.
“We have boys as young as 13 fighting with us,” Ali says. “Some of them we use to tell us where American troops are, others we give grenades and they throw them at Humvees and Bradleys. We recently killed a man who owned a uniform company because he was making uniforms for the Iraqi army. We kidnapped a cousin of Mowaffak al-Rubaie [national security adviser for Iyad Allawi’s provisional government] and killed him…. There are so many stories of operations. Four days ago we killed four police officers. We warned them three times to quit. We have agents in the government, in the police.”
Ali’s group is extremely fluid, and in contact with fighters in other parts of the capital and all over the country. “Recently we had ten men arrested. Six of them didn’t admit to anything and were released, but four of them admitted to the police that they were mujahedeen, and told them the name of our leader,” Ali said. “Now we are afraid they are working for the Americans, so the men who were working with them will either not work for a while or will move to other cities.”
The previous day I had breakfast at the home of some of Ali’s contacts in a northern neighborhood of the city, ironically on a busy street frequently patrolled by US armor. A front room in the house serves as a receiving area, a sort of terminal for fighters moving from one zone to another. The brothers who own the house, Abu Qurar and Abu Saif (both noms de guerre), nominally Shiite, became part of Baghdad’s nouveau riche when they heisted a bank during the postinvasion looting. They are go-betweens for Sabah Baldawi, a sort of robber baron who became legendary in the 1990s for his raucous parties and for providing substandard feed to Saddam Hussein’s son Uday’s racehorces to improve the winning chances of his own thoroughbreds. Before the regime fell, Baldawi fled to Syria with millions, though he has made frequent trips between Damascus and Baghdad with a handful of passports.
“See? The borders are open,” says Abu Qurar, the elder brother, laughing as he displays a poker hand of brand-new Iraqi passports, each with a different name. I compare his fake ones to Hiba’s real one. There is no discernible difference. The brothers are beholden to Baldawi, who they say exerts pressure on the local underworld, kidnapping family members of gangsters who don’t obey him. Though they claim Baldawi supports the insurgency because of his ideological opposition to the occupation, they soon lapse into talk of daring criminal exploits. Abu Saif says that when he was arrested a few months back, Baldawi spent $100,000 to free him.
In Haifa Street, Ali’s men are the law. “We don’t let people play cards, we don’t let people drink,” he says. “We warn the person, and then break his legs or kill him if he doesn’t stop.” His comment is emblematic of the arbitrary application of Islamic law within the insurgency. I ask why they don’t also apply Islamic law in cases of theft, knowing that much of the money funding the insurgency comes from criminal acts. Ali shrugs off the question. “Drinking and gambling lead to desperation,” he says.
Ali’s mujahedeen group spans borders and sects, absorbing fighters who come from outside to join the jihad, but its core, he says, is “Iraqis, especially Sunnis, but we have Shiites.” Ali’s status and ideology are murky; he claims his group follows the qaeda (base), the teachings of Osama bin Laden, but he brings this up only when pressed. More frequently, he talks about “the Big Man.” I ask him about Baldawi, and for the first time during our interview, he cracks a smile. He won’t admit that Baldawi is the Big Man, but he begins speaking with admiration. “He used to be brave, even during Saddam’s time. He wasn’t even religious–he was a rich man who helped poor people,” Ali says. “It was after the regime fell down that he found religion.”
Then I ask about money. “We don’t pay people to carry out attacks, but if they need money, we give it to them,” Ali says. The massive roundups carried out by the US and Iraqi armies, often based on worthless intelligence, are the best recruiting tool he has. “If men are sent to prison, we take care of their family, whether or not they are members of the resistance,” Ali says. “Many men join us when they get out even if they weren’t with us before.”
Baldawi was arrested on February 19 in Baghdad by Iraqi police, and injured in the process. It is certain, however, that many more of Iraq’s criminal class are ready to take his place. With the roundups by the US and Iraqi armies showing no sign of abating and dissatisfaction with the occupation remaining strong, it seems there will be recruits for some time to come.