BAGHDAD, Iraq — Before the assault on Fallujah, U.S. officials described the city as a den of foreign terrorists, but its top commanders were an electrician and a mosque preacher — both natives of the community and now on the run from American forces.
Religious fervor and hatred of Americans brought Omar Hadid and Abdullah al-Janabi together in a partnership that played a major role in transforming Fallujah from a sleepy Euphrates River backwater into a potent symbol of Arab nationalism.
Their rise to prominence provides insight into contemporary Iraq, where the U.S. presence sparked a religious backlash that gave radical Muslim leaders major roles in filling the void created by the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its replacement by a weak U.S.-backed government.
After U.S. Marines lifted the siege of Fallujah last April, central government control collapsed. That enabled men like Hadid, an electrician who lived with his mother, and al-Janabi, a local imam and member of an important local clan, to emerge as power brokers until the Marines took the city back this month.
Of the two, Hadid, thought to be in his early 30s, appears to have been the more influential, even though al-Janabi, in his 50s, headed the Mujahedeen Shura Council, which set up Islamic courts that meted out Islamic punishments, executed suspected spies and enforced a strict Islamic lifestyle.
Leverage over bands of fighters
Fallujah residents and Iraqis with close family ties to the city said al-Janabi was more a spiritual leader — deeply respected but without the leverage that Hadid enjoyed over the bands of fighters who patrolled the streets, directed traffic, attacked U.S. positions on the city’s fringes and fought the Americans in April and again this month.
Hadid led one of the bigger and better-armed factions in the city, residents say, but they also stress there were other groups of fighters and all largely operated independently of one another.
Some U.S. and Iraqi officials believe Hadid was close to Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose al-Qaida-linked movement allegedly used Fallujah as a headquarters. Al-Zarqawi’s group has claimed responsibility for many of the suicide bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages.
Doubts about al-Zarqawi
But many Fallujans insist al-Zarqawi was never in the city, even though American forces found what they believe was a command and training center for his movement. Residents also insist the number of foreign Arab fighters was small, giving estimates ranging from several dozen to a couple of hundred in a city of nearly 300,000 people.
Given the uncertainty about al-Zarqawi’s role, it is difficult to determine his relationship with either Hadid or al-Janabi.
Some Iraqis who knew Hadid said he was too independent-minded to have taken orders from al-Zarqawi or anyone else. “Omar is far too powerful to be anyone’s deputy,” said a neighbor of Hadid, who spoke on condition his name not be printed for security reasons.
Those who knew him said Hadid came from a lower middle-class Fallujah family. Since his father died a few years ago, Hadid had lived with his mother in the family home in the city’s al-Moatasim area until the fighting in April. He’s married but without children.
About two months ago, one of Hadid’s brothers and a nephew were killed by a U.S. airstrike that also injured several other family members, the neighbor said. Hadid escaped with a minor injury, he said.
Religious loyalties debated
People who know Hadid differ over the depth and nature of his religious persuasion. Some said he is a Salafi, a conservative sect whose members try to emulate the appearance and behavior of Islam’s 7th century prophet, Muhammad. Others said he is a Wahhabi, the austere and radical brand of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Janabi, on the other hand, is a Sufi, a mystical version of the faith that seeks closeness to God through the cleansing of one’s soul. Sufis abhor violence, but al-Janabi found in Hadid a like-minded partner as Salafis and Wahhabis began to prevail over Sufis in Fallujah.
“He’s a Salafi in a Sufi disguise,” said one native of Fallujah who says he knew both men.
Al-Janabi even joined Hadid in orchestrating the expulsion of a prominent Sufi cleric and mujahedeen leader, Sheik Dhafer al-Obeidi, from the Shura Council after they became alarmed by his growing popularity, say residents who knew the cleric. Al-Obeidi now lives in hiding abroad.
In 1998, al-Janabi, married with five children, was suspended by Saddam’s government from delivering Friday sermons because of his public criticism of government policies. He returned to the pulpit of Fallujah’s Saad Bin Abi Waqas mosque after Saddam’s ouster, devoting most of his sermons to calling on Iraqis to join in a holy war against the Americans.
Fearing for his safety, he stopped giving Friday sermons after the April fighting.
Residents said al-Janabi never carried a weapon in public but was frequently seen during the April fighting talking to front-line mujahedeen, exhorting them to fight on and telling them that those who died fighting Islam’s enemies would be rewarded with eternity in paradise.
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