Interview with anti-U.S. Iraqi cell

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO  |  Dec. 3, 2003 at 12:04 PM
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(Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on meetings United Press International's Baghdad correspondent P. Mitchell Prothero had with a top member of an anti-U.S. Iraqi guerrilla group)

"Wait fifteen minutes," Abu Mujhid says after looking at his watch. Sipping a 7-UP soda after having broken his Ramadan fast just after nightfall in mid-November, Abu Mujhid -- not his real name -- has just been challenged by a reporter to prove he commands a resistance cell that performs violent attacks on American troops occupying his home town of Baghdad.

It's a critical question for men claiming to be part of anti-U.S. forces. Most demand money for exclusive interviews and eventually approach journalists working in Iraq. These interviews usually end with some unknown man wearing a kaffiya -- or Arabic headscarf -- around his face, holding an AK-47 and talking about some unverifiable incident in which he personally killed scores of American troops.

But Abu Mujhid has never asked a reporter for money. And he sits at a table in Western dress for this meeting -- one of four he and his men conducted with United Press International -- his round face clearly identifiable in a public place.

The conditions placed on the meetings were that UPI not use a satellite telephone -- from which a location can easily be tracked by U.S. intelligence -- or cameras and recording devices. Each of the meetings was after nightfall, in a public place and the location and timing of the interviews were never set in advance. Abu Mujahid also disclosed the neighborhood he lives and operates from but asked it not be identified in the article. He also said that he alone could be quoted for the story.

Sixteen minutes after Abu Mujhid told UPI to wait, four mortar rounds fired from a southwestern Baghdad neighborhood about 3 miles away flew overhead, landing in the compound of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

"God willing we hit something this time," he says, wryly smiling. "Our mortars are very inaccurate. We cannot wait to aim them, so we use timers.

"The American helicopters come too fast for us to properly use the mortars as we were trained to. But we are finding ways to fight these helicopters. Before we would shoot flares at them. But this did no good. Now some of our colleagues have SA-7s or Strellas (Soviet-era anti-aircraft missiles), but me and my colleagues have no such equipment."

Abu Mujhid said he did not want to fight the Americans when they first arrived in April.

"Saddam, I liked him. He was a strong leader," he says. "But I was in the Baath Party and I knew that his men, mostly even Saddam's sons, were corrupt. They stole and stole from the Iraqi people. So I waited to see whether the Americans would liberate or occupy our lands.

"Before 1991, Saddam was a strong leader that killed his enemies," he says. "But the honest people were left alone. If a man was good and didn't involve himself in bad things, it was OK. But after 1991, because of the Americans and the war in Kuwait, Saddam became crazy and started killing even good people."

All decent Iraqis, he says, felt happy on the inside when the Americans came, though some Saddam supporters might have felt some sadness, everyone else knew there was a new chance for Iraq.

"I had always looked at the American government as respectable until now," he says. "I had met Americans before and always respected them. I still do. They are educated, they know how to build things, how to think and how to work hard.

"They promised to liberate us from occupation, they promised us rights and liberty and my colleagues and I waited to make our decision on whether to fight until we saw how they would act."

But for Abu Mujhid and his men these things never materialized. They say the U.S. troops acted savagely towards Iraqis and failed to provide security for them.

"They should have come and just given us food and some security," he said. "Even today I feel like I cannot drive my car at night because of Ali Baba (the Baghdad slang for criminals)."

"It was then I realized that they had come as occupiers and not as liberators," he says. "And my colleagues and I then voted to fight. So we began to meet and plan. We met with others and have tried to buy weapons. None of us are afraid to die, but it is hard. We are just men, workers, not soldiers."

While he says many American soldiers have offended him and his men, Abu Mujhid acknowledges some have been polite. Behavior, he says, has saved some of their lives.

"There have been some that say 'hello' or 'peace be unto you' in Arabic to me," he says. "They give our children sweets and do their jobs with respect. One of these men I even see as my friend. So we were conducting an operation, about to shoot at a Humvee one night when I realized it was the nice soldier. I told my man not to shoot him.

"But others treat us like dogs. I saw one put his boot on the head of an old man lying on the ground (during a raid.) Even Saddam would not have done such a thing."

Another incident soured Abu Mujhid on the occupation, he says. When a Humvee passed him and his friends one night while they were standing around drinking tea, the soldiers got out and accused them of having yelled obscenities at the troops.

"They cuffed our hands and one soldier kicked me," he says. "Then they released us because we had done nothing. It was that night I went and got my gun. The next night I shot the soldier that kicked me. But his (body armor) protected him. I don't think he died."

"But my colleagues and I don't hate the American people or even most of the soldiers," he says. "We just want them out of our land. If they promised to leave in one month and hold elections we would put down our arms. I don't want to kill anyone else. I don't want American to hate Iraq. I would wait to see if they left."

But the decision has already been made by his cell, comprised of former Baath Party members, that Saddam cannot return to power.

"We actually took a vote at a meeting last week," he says, laughing. "If the Americans leave and Saddam comes back, we will fight him too. Maybe if he were elected we'd allow it. But no one in Iraq wants Saddam back. He turned into a thief and a murderer who made too many mistakes. We don't want Saddam, but American cannot occupy us any longer."

(NEXT: Inside the workings of a Baghdad resistance cell.)

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