In October 2006, as the heat of an Iraqi summer was finally breaking, the blue eyes of Muthanna Youssef Hammoud glanced at four cars pulled to the side of the road in a tumultuous swath of northern Iraq then beholden to insurgents. "We didn't pay much attention," the wealthy businessman recalled.
Minutes later, a beige Toyota barreled in front of his blue BMW. A white Toyota blocked the street behind them. Alongside, the other two cars disgorged eight masked gunmen clad in black who fired a staccato burst in the air, then stuffed Hammoud and a friend into the trunks of the cars for a four-hour drive.
Their captors called the mastermind of the kidnapping "the sheik," orchestrating an odyssey that imprisoned the men in a half-dozen hideouts, some no more than a crumbling mud pen two feet high. Three weeks later, the sheik's men freed them after they paid $180,000 in ransom, collected in part by selling a gas station in Thuluyah.
The incident was so anonymous as to be forgotten. Hammoud and his friend survived, a feat in itself in the nadir of Iraq's carnage, where civilians in this town of vineyards and orchards along a bend in the Tigris River were sometimes beheaded with a shovel. But the voice of the mastermind lingered with Hammoud, and his recollection led Iraqi and U.S. soldiers this month to arrest Nadhim Khalil, a former insurgent leader known to his followers as Mullah Nadhim, who had become an American ally here.
Khalil's rivals have hailed his detention. His colleagues call it caprice. Either way, it underlines the free-for-all of elusive loyalties, stinging betrayals and unrequited vengeance as the U.S. military withdraws, its erstwhile allies splinter, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains tentative and everyone vies for power ahead of national elections.
In short, no one is in charge in Thuluyah. Khalil was -- until his arrest.
"Unbelievable," Khalil called the charges in Hammoud's kidnapping and another case that accuses him of ordering the execution with a bullet to the back of the head of 14 Shiite Muslim workers. But, he promised his opponents in a telephone interview conducted from detention through his brother, "I'll be back."
"Justice," said Hammoud, whose captors had handed him a green Koran as a parting gift when they freed him in the town's cemetery. "In my opinion, it's justice."
A cautionary tale in a fickle Iraq, the rivals of Khalil described it. "He was flying high, but he eventually came to the ground," said Abdullah al-Jabbouri, a gruff and bearish tribal leader. "Take this as a rule. Has he fallen or not?"
Changes in allegiance
Just 31, Khalil was no ordinary insurgent turned repentant. His home town was long a bastion of support for Saddam Hussein, who courted its Sunni inhabitants, as many as a fourth of whom worked for the army, state or intelligence. "Long live Saddam," reads graffiti still at its entrance. In those days, Khalil was a lonely voice as a Muslim cleric, castigating Hussein's government for lacking the justice of Islam's forebears, from the pulpit of Thuluyah's largest mosque, which he had inherited from his father.
After Hussein's fall, powerful tribes with the names of Jabbouri, Khazraji, Ubaidi and Bufarraj filled the void. But Khalil soon played his own role. The Americans persuaded tribal elders to make him a member of the city council, as a representative of the town's clergy. The honeymoon was brief, and by year's end, Khalil's zeal against the occupation, what he called a cancer in his sermons at the Caliphs Mosque, brought him into the insurgents' ranks. By August 2006, he had joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, a homegrown Sunni movement that U.S. officials say is led by foreigners and that soon seized control of Thuluyah, imposing a vision of Islamic law that banned smoking in the street.
Even today, Khalil is forthright about his past. "Four Years of an Insurgent Life," he titled a book he wanted to publish this year.
But by June 2007, deeming the insurgency a lost cause, he had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and begun working with the U.S. military, police and men who had deserted the insurgent movement for a U.S.-backed militia of former fighters. Within months, they routed the insurgents. Khalil proudly displays a picture from April 2007, as the fight was underway. It shows him carrying a sniper rifle and standing next to a beaming American soldier.
Until his arrest, Khalil dominated the town. He claimed the loyalty of 650 armed men still serving in the militia, known as the Sons of Iraq, many of them roaming the streets in tracksuits and plastic sandals. He headed a council of 10 tribal leaders established by Maliki. He said he met the U.S. military every two weeks and took credit for securing hundreds of jobs in the security forces. An Arabic satellite channel profiled him; an Iraqi newspaper declared him "the dictator of Thuluyah."
"He's a good man, he's a strong man and he has served the people," said Anas Khalil, a 20-year-old student. "Everyone here in Thuluyah loves Mullah Nadhim."
His neighbor, Ibrahim Ahmed, interrupted. "Not everyone," he cautioned.
Last month, a youth with his hair slicked back and dressed in a long jacket entered Khalil's mosque. Strapped to his body, said Khalil's brother Maher, were two rocket-propelled grenades, three mortar shells and more than 50 pounds of ball bearings and nails.
"There's a suicide bomber!" survivors recalled worshipers shouting.
Moments later, the bomber's head ricocheted off the mosque's ceiling. Four worshipers were killed and 16 wounded in the blast, some catching shrapnel in their legs as they ran to the door. Khalil had yet to arrive, but his brother Yasser was wounded in the left leg, back and right hand. His other brothers displayed the bloodied Koran he was holding, crediting it with saving his hand.
They blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq for the attack, the second on Khalil's mosque.
Ten days later, al-Qaeda in Iraq's enemies -- Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military -- arrived at Khalil's house at 5:30 p.m., as he sat with workers repairing the mosque. They were polite but insistent; he, the wounded Yasser and another brother had to come with them. Khalil asked to change into a clean gown known as a dishdasha, then sent word to another brother, Shaker, to tell militiamen loyal to him not to start trouble.
He was taken to neighboring Balad, where, Khalil said, cheering members of the Iraqi security forces began shouting slogans for Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric.
Shadow of politics
Loyalties in Thuluyah are mercurial and suspicions entrenched, even more so since the arrest of Khalil, whose absence has emboldened his rivals and confused his supporters. Maliki, in no uncertain terms, said that Khalil "will be released." But as Jabbouri, a critic of Khalil, pointed out, the future tense can be rather indefinite.
In the town, residents once too fearful to speak have begun airing their resentment of Khalil's past. Some suggested that Osama bin Laden had bought Khalil the Nissan Armada parked in his driveway. Others, even his fellow tribesmen, blame him for hundreds of deaths in 2006 and 2007. As a way of explanation, they contend that he was al-Qaeda in Iraq's fifth-ranking leader. Only that much bloodshed, they insist, would have delivered him that much power.
Hammoud, the kidnapping victim, has no doubt as to the identity of his captor.
"Mullah Nadhim's voice is the most distinct in Thuluyah. No one else's sounds like it. If there were 100 people sitting somewhere, I could tell it was his voice," he said.
To Khalil's supporters, his arrest was simply motivated by politics, prompted by Sunni rivals fearful of his promised run for parliament in elections to be held by January. Even Hammoud acknowledged as much. Hammoud's brother sits on the new provincial council, and the new governor belongs to the same party.
"Now with the situation in Iraq, everyone wants to win, everyone wants to prepare for the next elections. Every party -- how do you put it? -- is already challenging the other," said Shaalan Mohammed, a friend of Khalil's, sitting at his house.
Khalil's brothers Shaker and Maher nodded their heads in agreement.
"But I still have a question," Shaker said. "Why did the Americans take part?"
'A red line' — untouchable
Just months ago, Lt. Col. David Doherty, a U.S. military spokesman in northern Iraq, praised Khalil's role in the battle against the insurgency. "He has helped maintain peace and stability in the region," Doherty said, "while supporting the populace's need for the same."
Hammoud said the town's mayor had warned him not to file charges against Khalil because the U.S. military last year had declared Khalil "a red line" — untouchable.
In the interview from detention, Khalil still called himself "America's man and one of its most important supporters in the fight against al-Qaeda and other armed groups."
But these days, U.S. military officials are less generous. Another spokesman denied that the military had ever given him an amnesty, as Khalil claimed. Military officials now say he played no role in the Sons of Iraq, even as fighters in Thuluyah maintain that he is still their leader.
"We do believe Mullah Nadhim's arrest is a matter for the government of Iraq and are confident he will be treated fairly under Iraqi law," Maj. Derrick Cheng said.
"Citizens here are treated fairly under Iraqi law," he added.
At the city council, long considered as corrupt as it was impotent, some members once too meek to offer anything but praise for Khalil have assumed a newfound swagger. Jabbouri, a lawyer and former general who was one of the few to speak out about Khalil, sat under a lazy fan, exuding the sense of someone proved right.
Asked if he was happy about Khalil's arrest, he paused for a long moment.
"Definitely," he finally said.
"He forgot that the Americans are going to leave one day," he said. "It's like a fiancee and her groom. Before he marries her, he promises her a lot. After the marriage, he forgets everything. The Americans have pulled the carpet from under his feet."
Left behind, he added, are "the people, and there are those who demand justice." He sipped his tea, growing cold. "He's a cleric, and he should have stuck to religion."