BAGHDAD — The leader of a militant cell mounting attacks on U.S. forces from its Baghdad neighborhood says groups like his operate with little supervision from Ba’athist leaders but receive occasional help from outsiders who may be al Qaeda operatives.
He also said his group, which came together in reaction to the American presence in the country, does not seek the return of Saddam Hussein. If the despised dictator were to return, “We will fight him, too.”
The cell leader agreed to a series of four interviews in mid- and late-November using the pseudonym Abu Mujahid. Unlike many who offer such interviews, he did not ask to be paid for it.
Each of the meetings was held after nightfall, in a public place, the location and timing of which was set at the last moment. He demanded there be no use of a satellite telephone — from which a location could be traced — or of cameras or recording devices.
Challenged to prove he was really the head of a resistance cell that mounts violent attacks on American troops, Abu Mujahid looked at his watch and said, “Wait 15 minutes.”
Sixteen minutes later, four mortar rounds fired from a southwestern Baghdad neighborhood flew overhead, landing in the compound of the U.S.-led Provisional Authority.
“God willing, we hit something this time,” said Abu Mujahid, smiling wryly. “Our mortars are very inaccurate. We cannot wait to aim them, so we use timers.”
He said he did not want to fight the Americans when they first arrived in April.
“I had always looked at the American government as respectable, until now,” he said. “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, he said, the crime and chaos in the early days after Saddam’s fall convinced him and his colleagues — all Ba’ath Party members — that the Americans had come “as occupiers and not as liberators.”
“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.”
Abu Mujahid said the guerrillas waging dozens of attacks on American forces each day have a loosely organized command structure that prevents any one man from knowing too many specifics about other operations.
While some coordination and support exist between cells, most are left to operate independently.
“We have to find ways to get our own money to buy weapons,” he said. “The Ba’ath Party members at the top were rich, but I don’t think many of them help us fight. They don’t send us money or weapons.
“I have friends and colleagues who fight with the Army of Mohammed [a cell based in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah] and they have more money for antiaircraft weapons and explosives. Sometimes they help us, but mostly we are left to our own,” he said.
In early interviews, Abu Mujahid said that both Syrian intelligence and al Qaeda members were operating in Iraq, but denied receiving direct assistance from them. But in later interviews, he said he had received support from people he suspected had ties with terrorist organizations.
“In my neighborhood, we have many students from Yemen, Syria and Jordan,” he said. “Several of them give us money to buy weapons and conduct operations.”
When asked if he thought these students were members or supporters of al Qaeda, he smiled and shrugged.
“How does a student living in Iraq get money to give to me to buy RPG-7s?” he asked. “The Syrian ones I think they get money from their government, but we get some money from Yemenis and Saudis. I think they must belong to al Qaeda to have such money.
“But I don’t ask such things. I don’t like Osama bin Laden and don’t want to fight jihad against America. The Iraqi people just want the Americans to leave our country.”
Abu Mujahid explained in detail how his cell fits into the broader network of resistance units.
“I know our men, of which there are about 10. And I know one leader of another cell nearby. We both report to a leader who commands five of our groups. He has a commander, who I know about but do not know his name, who commands five of those groups — about 250 men, or 25 cells.
“And that commander reports to a man who commands about 10 of these groups. I think my organization has about 2,500 men. But I know there is someone above him. But I only know the names of my men and two men: the one above me and [another cell commander based nearby].
“So if the Americans arrest me they can only get me. If they torture me, I can only tell them two names of commanders. Each of those commanders only knows a few names and none of my men or the other men in the cells.”
When asked if this organization was put into place before the invasion, Abu Mujahid said he thought so but could not be sure.
“We are told that Saddam might be at the top of the organization,” he said, but personally he said he believes Saddam “is too busy hiding.”
“I think that the leaders above me are former generals who want to replace Saddam when the Americans leave,” he said.
In a separate interview, Abu Mujahid said his cell already had decided that Saddam could not return to power.
“We actually took a vote at a meeting last week,” he said, 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.”
Abu Mujahid said many American soldiers have offended him but some have been polite.
“There have been some that say ‘hello’ or ‘peace be unto you’ in Arabic to me,” he said. “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 helped persuade Abu Mujahid to take up arms, he said. He and some friends had been standing around drinking tea when some U.S. soldiers in a passing Humvee jumped out and accused them of yelling obscenities.
“They cuffed our hands and one soldier kicked me,” he said. “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.”
In the last of the four interviews, conducted at the height of the U.S. counteroffensive code-named Iron Hammer, Abu Mujahid said his men had taken serious losses.
“It has been very bad,” he said with a sigh as U.S. air strikes lighted the skies over southwest Baghdad. “We have lost more men to these strikes and in arrests. One of our men was waiting to ambush a U.S. Humvee when he was arrested.”
The resistance fighter, like many Iraqis, had been issued a permit from the coalition to carry an AK-47 automatic rifle, but was caught with a heavy machine gun.
Abu Mujahid said his men paid $600 to have a sympathetic member of the U.S. military translator corps replace the machine gun with an AK-47 and that he expected the man to be released the next day.
After promising another meeting to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Abu Mujahid disappeared. Neither he nor his men has been in contact since and their status cannot be established.