Fallouja's Role in Insurgency Sets Back Native Sons

Young Iraqis who leave for Baghdad to work or study but retain ties to their hometown find themselves branded as suspected terrorists.

By Asmaa Waguih

Special to The Times

July 8, 2005

BAGHDAD — The road home for Abdulla Muhammadi is filled with military checkpoints and suspicious glares.

Every time the 31-year-old electronics salesman approaches the barbed wire and wrecked buildings of his hometown of Fallouja, he faces wary Iraqi and U.S. troops who guard each entrance to the city and search all arriving vehicles and people. He and others must sometimes wait for hours to get in.

"When I enter my city," said Muhammadi, a Sunni Muslim Arab, like most Fallouja natives, "I feel like a stranger."

Fallouja's reputation as the hub of the nation's brutal insurgency has branded young men like Muhammadi as suspected terrorists.

Many went into self-imposed exile in Baghdad even before the November invasion led by the Marines, reinventing themselves and pursuing their education or careers while remaining emotionally tied to their infamous hometown.

Others, like Muhammadi, returned to Fallouja after the Marine assault but come often to Baghdad.

For many of these young men straddling two worlds, Fallouja is seen as a city that proudly stood up to foreign occupiers — not as the terrorism capital linked to beheadings, suicide bombings and the slaying and mutilation of four U.S. contractors, as it is seen in much of the world. The people there face hostility from U.S. and Iraqi authorities — as well as ordinary Iraqis, especially Shiite Muslims — who often view them as terrorists, though Muhammadi and others interviewed said they had no interest in joining the insurgency.

Muhammadi's friend Marwan Jaf, 29, spends time in Fallouja and the capital. He works as a car salesman in Baghdad and operates a juice shop in Fallouja. Profit from the juice shop has plummeted since the U.S. attack and the destruction of much of the city.

Even in Baghdad, though, Jaf cannot escape his Fallouja background.

While he was driving in the capital in December, Jaf said, a police officer stopped him at a checkpoint. "The policeman asked me why I live in Baghdad after he saw my ID. He acted as if I'd come from another country."

Jaf buys cars from Jordan and sells them in Iraq. He said that owning a car registered in Al Anbar province, which includes Fallouja and is considered the heartland of the insurgency, subjected him to harassment and dirty looks.

"I love my new Rover 2000 car that I bought last year, but now I don't drive it," said Jaf, explaining that the vehicle had one drawback: Al Anbar license plates.

"Now I'm using taxis instead…. People talk to us as if we are the ones behind all crisis of the country."

Many young men from the town feel pressure from rebel networks to join the insurgency, which in recent weeks has killed more than 1,000 Iraqis with car bombs and roadside explosives and in ambushes. Yet when they resist the lure of the guerrillas and pursue studies or professions, they find that possessing a Fallouja identity card carries a stigma in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

The city's notoriety tarnishes Falloujans studying at Baghdad University, whose student body includes Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians and people of other backgrounds.

Ahmed Abdulla, 25, a law student, said he sometimes found himself in uncomfortable discussions with teachers and colleagues — many of them Shiites —who regarded Fallouja as an irredeemable terrorist haven.

"You always find a professor who can have a sectarian tendency," Abdulla said.

A friend of his from Fallouja missed an exam in October, while the city was under siege.

"The professor didn't allow him to make up for the exam," Abdulla said. "He told him, 'This is what you did to yourselves.' "

Like many other Fallouja natives, Abdulla complains that outsiders, Iraqis and U.S. troops alike, assume everyone from the town is loyal to Hussein and his ousted Baath Party. Although much of Sunni Arab Iraq was loyal to Hussein, Abdulla noted, those regions were not spared the dictator's brutality.

"They don't have a clue that there are a lot of people from Fallouja who were also persecuted and oppressed by Saddam's regime," Abdulla said, adding that Fallouja suffered shortages during the decade of sanctions that preceded the 2003 war. "They forget that all cities except for Baghdad endured a lack of electricity and services during the sanction years."

These days, Abdulla spends most of his time in Baghdad. He lives in a student dormitory during the academic year but returns to Fallouja when school is out and on weekends, taking his chances on the perilous roads and at checkpoints. With its Internet cafes destroyed or shut down, Fallouja is hardly the place to conduct academic research.

At any rate, there is little work in Fallouja, and most of the 300,000 or so residents have not returned.

Once a thriving regional commercial center, Fallouja is now an occupied city — U.S. and Iraqi forces patrol the streets and monitor comings and goings — where rubble-filled lots and gutted buildings scar once-bustling neighborhoods.

Jaf, the car salesman and juice entrepreneur, is of Kurdish descent. But he says he feels more at home in Fallouja than in the Kurdish north. Likewise, he notes, his friends in Fallouja's small Shiite community also are attached to the town.

"Even the Shia there feel the same way about Fallouja," Jaf said.

He depicts his hometown in sentimental terms far removed from the signature images of ritual executions and ecstatic youths dancing around a burning Humvee.

"People in Fallouja have ethics," Jaf said, praising the city's old-fashioned tribal and Sunni religious principles that he said prevented looting in the chaotic period after Hussein's ouster two years ago.

"After the fall of the regime, men were watching over banks, buildings and electricity towers so that nothing gets stolen. No public offices were burned or looted like other parts of the country."

Mohammed Jumaili, 30, a photographer from Fallouja who has resettled in Baghdad, said he could no longer practice his craft in his hometown. He said U.S. forces detained him in February because he was carrying a camera, and he was held for 15 days.

"They had to check for a long time [to be sure] that I don't work and take pictures for the insurgency," Jumaili said. "It's no longer a place for me to work."

The photographer's ties to Fallouja have also complicated his professional life in the capital. Once, while waiting to take pictures at a briefing about three kidnapped Romanian journalists, Jumaili endured blistering wisecracks from colleagues hinting that he must know the hostages' whereabouts.

"Even if they are joking, it's very embarrassing," Jumaili said.

Jumaili, like many Falloujans, defends residents' right to resist the U.S. presence in his city. "We in Fallouja all believe in resistance," he said. "We are tribal, and we think that what we lost by force we'll regain by force."

With so much in common, Fallouja's young exiles seek one another out. Many relish time spent in Baghdad with hometown friends, who share an understanding of their exile experience.

"There's nowhere to meet each other in Fallouja," Muhammadi noted. "So many places are destroyed."

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Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman and Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.