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.