IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Cause redefined by Fallujah siege

The U.S. siege of Fallujah, designed to isolate and pursue a handful of extremists in a restive town, has produced a powerful backlash in Baghdad.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The U.S. Marine siege of Fallujah, designed to isolate and pursue a handful of extremists in a restive town, has produced a powerful backlash in the capital. Urged on by leaflets, sermons and freshly sprayed graffiti calling for jihad, young men are leaving Baghdad to join a fight that residents say has less to do with battlefield success than with a cause infused with righteousness and sacrifice.

"The fighting now is different than a year ago. Before, the Iraqis fought for nothing. Now, fighters from all over Iraq are going to sacrifice themselves," said a Fallujah native who gave his name as Abu Idris and claimed to be in contact with guerrillas who slip in and out of the besieged city three and four times daily.

He spoke in a mosque parking lot emptied moments earlier of more than a ton of donated foodstuffs destined for Fallujah -- heavy bags of rice, tea and flour loaded into long, yellow semitrailers by a cluster of men who, their work done, joined a spirited discussion about the need to take the fight to the enemy. They included a dentist, a prayer leader, a law student, a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi police and a man who until 10 days earlier had traveled with U.S. troops as a member of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

"Our brothers who went to Fallujah and came back say: 'Oh, God, it is heaven. Anyone who wants paradise should go to Fallujah,' " Abu Idris said.

The lopsided battle 35 miles to the west -- where 2,500 Marines have been deployed -- has had a profound impact here, redefining for many in Baghdad the nature of the campaign against U.S. troops.

Deepened sense of nationalism
Intense, sympathetic and often startlingly graphic coverage on Arab channels has deepened a vein of nationalism, stirred in part by still unconfirmed reports of high civilian casualties. Over the weekend, in the living room of a decidedly secular family, a woman wept over the images on a screen she finally leaned forward and kissed.

Headlines in Iraq's newly free press reinforce the video images: "Fallujah Wakes to a Grave Massacre" read the banner in Monday's edition of the daily Azzaman. Fresh graffiti sprayed in sweeping Arabic letters is turning up across the city. On one wall in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad, the messages were spaced 10 yards apart: "Long live Fallujah's heroes." "Down with America and long live the Mahdi Army," a Shiite militia. Then: "Long live the resistance in Fallujah." And finally, "Long live the resistance."

The popular response -- of Shiite and Sunni giving aid, shelter to refugees and even volunteers to the fight -- has pushed fears of an Iraqi civil war to the background. The fighters in Fallujah are said to include Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. A housewife in Baghdad's Salaam neighborhood told of a passionate argument with her husband, a Shiite who insisted on joining friends volunteering to fight in Fallujah.

"This is jihad," she quoted him as saying. She added: "It was the first time he ever slapped me."

Some here are already speaking with the sense of history -- that powerful, deeply symbolic myths are being created.

"What is striking is how much has changed in a week -- a week," said Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "No one can talk about the Sunni Triangle anymore. No one can seriously talk about Sunni-Shiite fragmentation or civil war. The occupation cannot talk about small bands of resistance. Now it is a popular rebellion and it has spread."

"I think it will be bigger than Karameh," he added.

Assuming mythic proportions?
For a generation, the battle of Karameh created the myths that propelled a movement. On March 21, 1968, an Israeli force of 15,000 struck at the Jordanian village of Karameh. The raid was retaliatory -- guerrillas had staged attacks from the village, just across the Jordan River. But in a rare success, Palestinian guerrillas forced an embarrassing Israeli withdrawal with the help of Jordanian artillery and armor.

For an Arab world accustomed to humiliating defeats, a draw can assume mythic proportions. Repelling the Israeli army amounted to the guerrillas' biggest victory up to that time and energized Palestinians.

Fallujah is producing a mythology of its own. In the parking lot of the former Mother of All Battles Mosque, now renamed for the sacred shrine in Mecca, Abu Idris told of a Saudi who came to Fallujah to fight. Hearing that a Marine was sniping from a minaret, the Saudi asked for a sniper rifle of his own, "and whenever a man came to stand on the minaret, he killed him," Abu Idris told the assembled crowd.

The account inverts the reports from the Marine side of the front, where U.S. officers warned infantry of insurgents' efforts to draw fire to the mosque towers. But veracity may be a secondary concern in a capital preoccupied by the belief that Fallujah is undergoing an unjust collective punishment for the mutilation of four American security contractors by a handful of men two weeks ago.

"It's natural that many fighters from Baghdad want to go to Fallujah and fight," said Abdulqadir Mohammad Ali, prayer leader at the modest Great Mosque in Baghdad's Washash neighborhood. A Sunni mosque in a mixed neighborhood, it displayed a Sadr poster on one wall.

Ali's office smelled like a bakery, so fresh were the cookies young men poured into the dozen bulging bags that crowded the room, more food for Fallujah. The imam spoke over the din of the Koranic verses that have been booming out of the mosque's loudspeakers since the siege began more than a week ago. On a bench beside a window, an elderly man read a battered copy of the holy book and occasionally sobbed. Abdullah Hussein Othman, a 70-year-old ethnic Kurd, explained he had two daughters in Fallujah.

"The exact image I want to give you is the young men heading to fight in Fallujah are more than the refugees coming out of Fallujah," Ali said. "We cannot control the feelings of the young."

The fighters, he added, reject the label "fedayeen," the name for deposed president Saddam Hussein's most zealous fighters, who, like the new insurgents, favor black attire. "We say 'mujaheddin,' " he said, Arabic for sacred combatants.

‘No occupation after today’
Slang has also evolved. Many Shiites recall a slogan they saw written on the barrel of an Iraqi tank dispatched to crush a 1991 Shiite uprising: "No more Shiites after today." In the tumultuous aftermath of Hussein's fall a year ago, new slogans went up across cities in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq: "No Baathists after today."

Monday, in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, there was another variation: "No occupation after today."

The resistance also recently acquired a logo. Two fingers form a victory sign over an image of Iraq on posters that appeared in Baghdad on Monday. The words "No to the occupation" appear over the date Baghdad fell: April 9, 2003. Sadr makes the same gesture in a poster of his own.

"I don't think any honorable Iraqi could stand by and do nothing when he sees women and children killed," said Abu Ali, a merchant in the once avowedly pro-Hussein neighborhood of Karrada. "An Iraqi must either fight or leave the country. It is better for him to be hosted by the graves than just watching and doing nothing."

How many Iraqis are volunteering to fight in Fallujah cannot be easily determined. The Baghdad man who quit the Civil Defense Corps because of Fallujah said he could name 30 friends who have joined the fight. But the man, who gave his name only as Ahmed, also spoke of Saudi fighters recently arrived in the city "to sacrifice themselves" and of word passing through the resistance that Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian blamed by U.S. officials for many suicide bombings, is sending a group into the country.

"There is no number to count the army that will fight the Americans," Ahmed said. "It's so big, it's limitless."

Abu Idris said some Fallujah natives insisted that they did not need help, leaving many volunteers to roam the region between the city and the capital. The area has become a no-go zone in recent days, with several journalists kidnapped and convoys attacked.

"Mujaheddin are just killing the agents who are supplying the Americans," said a teenager who gave his name as Abu Hanifa. He smiled, then scampered into the back of a blue truck with the other volunteers. Calling out for a photograph, they laughed and held up two fingers in a victory sign.

As the truck pulled away, the teenager called out: "We will defeat you, God willing."