Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Vow to Fight Raises Question: Is Calm in Iraq Just the Eye of the Storm?

by Leila Fadel

GARMA, Iraq — Mohammed walked in disbelief through the rich green grass that carpets the farm behind his modest family home. For more than three years, he'd seen no green, no hanging branches in the orchards near his home in Garma, in Anbar province in western Iraq.

For more than three years, he'd worn a yellow jumpsuit in the U.S. detention center of Bucca in the hot desert outside Basra, hundreds of miles from home. He waited for his family's rare visits, and his heart lifted.

Between those visits, there was darkness. He was convinced that he'd never see this familiar place, his fiancee or his family again.

"Sometimes I ask myself, 'Am I truly here or am I dreaming?' " he said.

Even with his release, however, the 23-year-old never surrendered his principles, though he learned what he had to say in order to be freed: "Yes, I fought you. No, I won't do it again."

In America, the U.S. "surge" of additional troops to Baghdad is heralded as a success, and President Barack Obama has said he'll draw down American forces in Iraq and turn his attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Iraq, however, what the U.S.-led invasion and occupation started is far from over.

Most Iraqis think that today's lower level of violence is the eye, not the end, of the storm, and that the decisive power struggles are just beginning. The U.S.-backed Iraqi government is widely regarded as an undeserving group of exiles who returned to Iraq on the backs of American tanks.

Over the weekend, fighting broke out between Sunni Muslims and Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led security forces, and it's unclear whether the security forces, still heavily backed by U.S. air and ground support, are loyal to their nation rather than their sect, tribe, town or ethnicity.

Although the Sunni insurgency that earlier had battled U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces and killed thousands of civilians is weakened, Mohammed is one of many Iraqis who still believe in what he calls the muqawima, the resistance. He always will.

Mohammed is one of the thousands of detainees who're being released from U.S. detention centers as America prepares to withdraw forces from Iraq. There are about 13,400 detainees in U.S.-run prisons, and on average 50 are released each day. Some are guilty of crimes, others are innocent, many have never been afforded due process and some have become radicalized by their time in prison.

A U.S. military study of 138,000 Iraqi detainees found that economics motivated 70 percent of them and local issues another 20 percent; fewer than 10 percent were Islamic radicals.

Iraqi officials worry that releasing detainees will trigger a new wave of violence. In some cases, local police are using vigilante law and killing people who've been released from U.S. detention centers, according to residents in Anbar. Most are too afraid to talk about it.

Mohammed came home late last year still determined to resist. He has one rule: Target only American troops, never civilians.

However, the resistance, a movement that he believes is the only way to restore dignity to the Iraqi people, was damaged by zealots who used a warped interpretation of Islam to justify killing Iraqis by the thousands. Damaged by the fatigue and terror that the sectarian war of 2006 and 2007 instilled in every Iraqi heart. Damaged by money and damaged by greed.

"There are people who are just killers, and then there are people who are resistance," Mohammed said. "I am resistance."

Mohammed is from a family of "resistance." His late father, Farouq, is almost legendary in nearby Fallujah. He's known as the first man to face American forces in that town, once the heart of the Sunni insurgency and a death trap for U.S. forces.

Farouq was detained shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. For months, his family didn't know where he was. That May, he came home a changed man, said his brother Abu Sleiman. Farouq became obsessed with avenging his personal and national humiliation.

"They wanted to mold him like dough in their hands," Abu Sleiman said of the Americans. "He was so hurt."

Farouq organized with others in Garma, and the emerging resistance fighters trained in the vast land behind his home as U.S. tanks drove through the streets and American soldiers raided homes.

At the end of 2003, Farouq went to the outskirts of Fallujah with nine other men to attack the Americans. He and his compatriots wouldn't plant a bomb and run away, as others had. For them, there'd be no retreat.

Mohammed followed his father to the battle. Farouq protested, so Mohammed trailed the fighters by almost a mile.

In the dark of night, he watched the tracer fire of the battle. His father didn't retreat. The lone survivor of the battle said that Farouq had drawn fire to himself to help him get away. His family says that Farouq became a martyr that day, a hero.

"This was my brother, strong to the end," said Mohammed's uncle Abu Sleiman, who's a teacher.

Farouq's wife — Mohammed's mother, Umm Mohammed — was widowed with her seven children, and Abu Sleiman became a father figure to his nieces and nephews. Her grief, however, was mixed with pride.

"I tell my children to follow his footsteps. Walk the same path your father did," Umm Mohammed said. She cradled her 7-year-old daughter in her arms. "The Americans have done us an injustice, a very big injustice."

She ticked off the men in her family, one of them her young son, whom U.S. troops have killed; some with stray American bullets, others as they attacked the Americans.

She thinks that her 16-year-old son was caught in a crossfire and killed by the Americans. Others, however, say that out of desperation and sadness, he turned to al Qaida in Iraq, seeking revenge. U.S. troops killed him while he was with the radical Islamists, and his family never got his body back from the group, and never buried him.

Abu Sleiman still sobs when he's reminded of his nephew's death. He couldn't protect the boy, and his silence carries the guilt that he cannot voice.

"An uncle is not a father," is all he can say.

Mohammed and the rest of his family never worked with al Qaida in Iraq. When the militant group made it halal, or permissible, to kill Muslims, specifically Shiites, it undermined what the family calls the "honorable resistance."

"Al Qaida broke the back of the resistance," said Mohammed's uncle Abu Sleiman.

Another one of Abu Sleiman's brothers, a religious sheik, left the country for a time rather than work with al Qaida in Iraq. Abu Sleiman blames America for the rise of the violent extremist group, which emerged only after American tanks rolled into the country.

Still, Abu Sleiman and his family will continue to resist.

"This generation has learned to hate, more and more," Mohammed said

Throughout the war, the family members joke, their home was a pit stop for American soldiers. Every time a tank passed, another member of the clan was picked up. Almost every man in the family was detained. Mohammed and his uncle Abu Izzuddin, a tribal sheik, spent the longest time in prison.

Abu Izzuddin wrote poetry to remind himself of his loved ones and his beloved town. A respected leader in the community, he was detained in his home in front of a crowd of guests. Only one other act could be more humiliating: his guests being detained in his home.

Mostly, Abu Izzuddin wrote about love and his longing for his wife and children:

"And in me is grief and pain that hurt me in a way
"That no pen and paper can describe

"Injustice, subjugation and deprivation are crushing me

"And the wounds of my heart are oozing pus and pain

"When I see you, I see Paradise approaching

"Towards me, and all the wounds of my soul will heal.

Before they were detained, the U.S. fought two bloody battles to try to retake Fallujah from Sunni fighters, and the city morphed into a prison. Residents were forced to walk in and out of Fallujah through U.S. checkpoints with American-issued IDs.

While Mohammed and his uncle waited in prison, stripped of power and forced to follow the orders of foreigners, Iraq changed. The schism between Sunnis and Shiites grew, and the corpses of people killed in sectarian feuds were thrown into the streets.

Al Qaida in Iraq, initially an ally to Sunni "resistance" fighters, grew stronger and eventually declared an Islamic state in Anbar and other Sunni areas. The extremists forced the population to live under their brand of Islamic law.

A new, U.S.-backed central government formed in Baghdad.

The Sunni Awakening sprang up when tribal leaders grew tired of al Qaida in Iraq assassinating prominent leaders, forcing local women to marry fighters and in some cases cutting into smuggling profits. The U.S. military started doling out cash to Sunni fighters and others to stop shooting or join the fight against al Qaida in Iraq.

After three years, Mohammed lost all hope of returning home. Three times, he was called before an American panel to review his case. Three times, the Americans asked him whether he'd attacked U.S. forces. Three times he denied it.

"Terrorist," they called him, and back to detention he went.

The fourth time he told the truth.

"I am resistance. I had weapons," he said.

"Why?" they asked.

"You are an occupier. You humiliate our people," he replied.

"Will you continue to do it?" they asked.

"No. You were acting bad, but I hear you're behaving in a better way."

A little more than a month later, his jailers let him go.

Mohammed had told one lie, however. He'd never abandon the fight.

"I wanted to save myself," he said, explaining why he'd faked rehabilitation.

The day after he was released, Mohammed married his fiancee. His wife is four months pregnant now.

Mohammed scorns much of the Sunni Awakening, now known as the Sons of Iraq, for selling out its principles, taking cash from the occupier and turning against its own people.

"The people who are with the occupier, we consider him an occupier. These are the same looters, criminal gangs and killers who were in for money," Mohammed said. "If the resistance is stopped, the U.S. will not leave. . . . They want Iraq to be subjugated and to strip it, and now the police and sahwa (Awakening) do their work for them."

The police, known for brutalizing anyone slightly under suspicion of connections to al Qaida in Iraq, detained and beat one of Mohammed's brothers. When he was released, his mother sighed with relief, even at the sight of her son's bruises.

"I thanked God he was released; so many boys never come back," she said.

Mohammed was offered a job with the police. He refused it. He paused and thought about why. Would he be able to detain all these men that Americans said were terrorists?

"If I became a policeman, would I shake the hands of the Americans when they came to the police station?" he asked. "If I was ordered to detain a man whom I knew to be resistance, could I say no?"

"At this moment, it is better for us to sit and be quiet. Once we start fighting . . . ," Mohammed said, and then his words trailed off. "Everything I'm doing is being watched."

As Umm Mohammed offered fruit and other food to her guests, the gracious host stood firm in her beliefs. She needed it to be understood, however, that it isn't Americans she wants to fight, or her children to fight, it's the occupier. If it were any other foreigners, she and her family would fight them, as well.

"The Americans should get out of Iraq, leave Iraq to the Iraqis," she said. "What happened here is because of them, and they will be held accountable."

No one thinks that the Americans will leave, despite Obama's promises to draw down troops. Iraqis have heard American promises before, promises that never came to be.

"History will not have mercy on America," Abu Sleiman said. "I believe that it reached its peak, and now it is on its way down. America was hijacked from the Americans."

© McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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