In Western Iraq, Fundamentalists Hold U.S. at Bay
By JOHN F. BURNS and ERIK ECKHOLM
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 28 - While American troops have been battling Islamic militants to an uncertain outcome in Najaf, the Shiite holy city, events in two Sunni Muslim cities that stand astride the crucial western approaches to Baghdad have moved significantly against American plans to build a secular democracy in Iraq.
Both of the cities, Falluja and Ramadi, and much of Anbar Province, are now controlled by fundamentalist militias, with American troops confined mainly to heavily protected forts on the desert's edge. What little influence the Americans have is asserted through wary forays in armored vehicles, and by laser-guided bombs that obliterate enemy safe houses identified by scouts who penetrate militant ranks. Even bombing raids appear to strengthen the fundamentalists, who blame the Americans for scores of civilian deaths.
American efforts to build a government structure around former Baath Party stalwarts - officials of Saddam Hussein's army, police force and bureaucracy who were willing to work with the United States - have collapsed. Instead, the former Hussein loyalists, under threat of beheadings, kidnappings and humiliation, have mostly resigned or defected to the fundamentalists, or been killed. Enforcers for the old government, including former Republican Guard officers, have put themselves in the service of fundamentalist clerics they once tortured at Abu Ghraib.
In the past three weeks, three former Hussein loyalists appointed to important posts in Falluja and Ramadi have been eliminated by the militants and their Baathist allies. The chief of a battalion of the American-trained Iraqi National Guard in Falluja was beheaded by the militants, prompting the disintegration of guard forces in the city. The Anbar governor was forced to resign after his three sons were kidnapped. The third official, the provincial police chief in Ramadi, was lured to his arrest by American marines after three assassination attempts led him to secretly defect to the rebel cause.
The national guard commander and the governor were both forced into humiliating confessions, denouncing themselves as "traitors" on videotapes that sell in the Falluja marketplace for 50 cents. The tapes show masked men ending the guard commander's halting monologue, toppling him to the ground, and sawing off his head, to the accompaniment of recorded Koranic chants ordaining death for those who "make war upon Allah." The governor is shown with a photograph of himself with an American officer, sobbing as he repents working with the "infidel Americans," then being rewarded with a weeping reunion with his sons.
In another taped sequence available in the Falluja market, a mustached man identifying himself as an Egyptian is shown kneeling in a flowered shirt, confessing that he "worked as a spy for the Americans," planting electronic "chips" used for setting targets in American bombing raids. The man says he was paid $150 for each chip laid, then he, too, is tackled to the ground by masked guards while a third masked man, a burly figure who proclaims himself a dispenser of Islamic justice, pulls a 12-inch knife from a scabbard, grabs the Egyptian by the scalp, and severs his head.
The situation across Anbar represents the latest reversal for the First Marine Expeditionary Force, which sought to assert control with a spring offensive in Falluja and Ramadi that incurred some of the heaviest American casualties of the war, and a far heavier toll, in the hundreds, among Falluja's resistance fighters and civilians. The offensive ended, mortifyingly for the marines, in a decision to pull back from both cities and entrust American hopes to the former Baathists.
The American rationale was that military victory would come only by flattening the two cities, and that the better course lay in handing important government positions to former loyalists of the ousted government, who would work, over time, to wrest control from the Islamic militants who had emerged from the shadows to build strongholds there. The culmination of that approach came with the recruitment of the so-called Falluja Brigade, led by a former Army general under Mr. Hussein, and composed of a motley assembly of former Iraqi soldiers and insurgents, who marched into the city in early May, wearing old Iraqi military uniforms, backed with American-supplied weapons and money.
But the Falluja Brigade is in tatters now, reduced to sharing tented checkpoints on roads into the city with the militants, its headquarters in Falluja abandoned, like the buildings assigned to the national guard. Men assigned to the brigade, and to the two guard battalions, have mostly fled, Iraqis in Falluja say, taking their families with them, and handing their weapons to the militants.
The militants' principal power center is a mosque in Falluja led by an Iraqi cleric, Abdullah al-Janabi, who has instituted a Taliban-like rule in the city, rounding up people suspected of theft and rape and sentencing them to publicly administered lashes, and, in some cases, beheading. But Mr. Janabi appears to have been working in alliance with an Islamic militant group, Unity and Holy War, that American intelligence has identified as the vehicle of Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist with links to Al Qaeda whom the Americans have blamed for many of the suicide bombings in Baghdad, which is just 35 miles from Falluja, and in other Iraqi cities.
The videotapes showing the killing of the guard commander, the humiliation of the governor, and the beheading of the Egyptian all display the black-and-yellow flag of the Zarqawi group as a backdrop, and the passages of the Koran chanted as an accompaniment to the killings are drawn from passages of the Muslim holy book that have accompanied some of the videotaped pronouncements by Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Iraqis who have watched the Falluja tapes say the Egyptian's executioner speaks in a cultured Arabic that is foreign, possibly Jordanian or Palestinian.
A Severe Blow in Falluja
Perhaps the harshest blow to the American position in Falluja came with the Aug. 13 execution of the national guard commander, Suleiman Mar'awi, a former officer in Mr. Hussein's army with family roots in Falluja. In the tape of his killing, he is seen in his camouflaged national guard uniform, with an Iraqi flag at his shoulder, confessing to his leadership of a plot to stage an uprising in the city on Aug. 20 that was to have been coordinated with an American offensive. For that purpose, he says, he recruited defectors among the militants' ranks and met frequently with Marine commanders outside the city to settle details of the attack.
American commanders in Baghdad acknowledged ruefully that Mr. Mar'awi had been killed, but they denied that there was any plan for an offensive. Still, Marine commanders at Camp Falluja, a sprawling base less than five miles east of the city, have been telling reporters for weeks that the city has become little more than a terrorist camp, providing a haven for Iraqi militants and for scores of non-Iraqi Arabs, many of them with ties to Al Qaeda, who have homed in on Falluja as the ideal base to conduct a holy war against the United States. Eventually, the Marine officers have said, American hopes of creating stability in Iraq will necessitate a new attack on the city, this time one that will not be halted before it can succeed.
Some of those officers have also acknowledged that Iraqi "scouts" working for the Americans, some disguised as militants, others working for the national guard and police, have been a source of intelligence on militant activities in Falluja, and on the location of bombing targets. The American command says it has carried out many bombing raids since the Marine pullback from the city in May, killing scores of militants. One such raid that was reported this week in a popular Baghdad newspaper, Al-Adala, said that 13 Yemenis had been killed in an air raid in Falluja as they prepared to carry out suicide bombing attacks in Baghdad, and that the Yemeni government was negotiating to bring the bodies home.
Among militants in Falluja, there has been one point of agreement with the Americans - that many of the bombing raids have hit militant safe houses, and with pinpoint accuracy. A clue as to how this has been possible is given in the tapes of the beheadings of Mr. Mar'awi, the national guard commander, and of the Egyptian, a man in his mid-30's who identifies himself on the tape as Muhammad Fawazi. Both men confess to having planted electronic homing "chips" for the Americans. As they speak, the tapes show a man wearing a red-checkered kaffiyeh headdress holding a rectangular device, colored green and encased in clear plastic, about the size of a matchbox....
... American commanders confess they have no answers in Anbar, and say their strategy is to curb the militants' ability to project their violence farther afield, especially in Baghdad. A recent meeting between Iraq's interim prime minister, Dr. Allawi, and a delegation of tribal sheiks from Falluja who have pledged fealty to Mr. Janabi is said to have reached a standstill accord, with Dr. Allawi promising not to sanction large-scale American attacks on the Anbar cities, and the sheiks conveying Mr. Janabi's pledge to halt militant attacks on the Americans...
I remember when snuff films were a rumor of extreme perversity. Now they sell for 50 cents in Iraqi markets. The march of progress.
In these cities the Sunni fundamentalists are popular. Removing these men would mean killing most of the inhabitants.
Ok George, what now?