In Western Iraq, Fundamentalists Hold U.S. at Bay

By JOHN F. BURNS and ERIK ECKHOLM

The New York Times

August 29, 2004

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.

The tape of Mr. Fawazi's execution breaks from the scene of the Egyptian kneeling in confession to a combat-camera film from a bombing raid on Falluja that has been posted on numerous Internet Web sites in recent weeks. The black-and-white tape, giving the pilot's eye view, shows a district of Falluja on a moonlit night, with the targeting crosshairs fixed on a large, low building across the street from a mosque, whose minaret throws a moon shadow onto the street. The sound of the pilot breathing into his mask can be clearly heard, with an exchange with a controller that speaks for the nonchalance of modern warfare.

"I have numerous individuals on the road, do you want me to take them out?" the pilot asks as the tape shows about 40 men coming out of the building and heading down the street away from the mosque, toward what some Web site accounts said was a firefight between militants and American troops.

After a pause, the controller replies, saying, "Take them out."

The pilot, having fired his weapon, begins the countdown. "Ten seconds," he says.

"Roger," the controller replies. The combat camera swings suddenly, picturing the scene from behind the men below. A huge blast of smoke and flame erupts on the road, enveloping the men, as the pilot cries "Impact!"

The controller then closes the exchange. "Oh dude!" he says, with what appears to be a chuckle.

The execution tape then shifts to scenes of devastation after an air attack on Falluja. It shows a crater, rubble, people piling up belongings, injured being carried into a hospital, and distraught-looking groups of civilians, including children. Shifting back to Mr. Fawazi, it shows him with his hands tied behind his back, looking downcast at the ground, then nervously toward the camera, as the heavyset man towering over him quotes passages from the Koran ordaining death. "He who will abide by the Koran will prosper, he who offends against it will get the sword," he says, his right forefinger pumping in the air, pointing first to heaven, then down to Mr. Fawazi.

"The only reward for those who make war on Allah and on Muhammad, his messenger, and plunge into corruption, will be to be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet severed on alternate sides, or be expelled from the land," the man says. With that, the two gunmen flanking the executioner shout "Allahu akbar!" God is great, drop their Kalashnikovs and tumble Mr. Fawazi face down on the ground. The killer pulls his knife from behind a magazine belt on his chest, grabs Mr. Fawazi by the hair, severs his head, holds it up briefly to the camera, then places it between his rope-tied hands on his back.

Police Chief Presumed Corrupt

On Aug. 21, the Marine headquarters issued a brief news release. The police chief of Anbar, Ja'adan Muhammad Alwan, had been arrested that day in Ramadi on suspicion of "corruption and involvement in criminal activities to include accepting bribes, extortion, embezzling funds, as well as possible connections with kidnapping and murder." A Marine spokesman, Lt. Eric Knapp, declined to offer more details of Mr. Alwan's charges, beyond saying, "everyone knew he was corrupt."

In the Hussein years, Mr. Alwan was a senior police officer and also a high-ranking Baathist, people who knew him at the time say. But unlike many Iraqis who prospered under Mr. Hussein, those Ramadi residents said, he had never been known as a thug. When the Americans arrived, leaders of a local clan that had secretly cooperated with the invaders vouched for him. But soon, one Ramadi resident said, "People started to hate him because he was too cooperative with the Americans." Repeated death threats followed, and the three assassination attempts. The third, in May, especially shook him, acquaintances said, because he survived a rocket attack on his car, but his eldest son lost a leg.

Soon after, the verdict on the streets of Ramadi about the police chief began to change. Although he may have raked in illegal profits, Ramadi people say, he also began cooperating with Islamic militants, even passing American military plans to them. Although such claims are unverifiable, the assassination attempts stopped. But so too, last week, did Mr. Alwan's tenure as police chief. The Marines say that his arrest followed a three-to-five month investigation, that "countless government officials were afraid of him" and that the provincial chief "contributed to crime and instability."

Asked whether Mr. Anbar was also charged with aiding the insurrection, Lt. Knapp, the spokesman, said tersely by e-mail, "We are investigating suspected ties to the insurgency." Lt. Knapp described how the police chief was lured to captivity. "To avoid bloodshed and to make the arrest as clean as possible," he wrote, a Marine officer who had been working with the police invited him to a meeting in an American camp. On his arrival at the gate he climbed into a car where he was advised of his arrest. The e-mail message concluded, "He was then removed from the vehicle, handcuffed, and blackout goggles were put on him for security reasons."

Sabotage by Humiliation

In the case of the provincial governor, Abdulkarim Berjes, Mr. Zarqawi's group, Unity and Holy War, appears to have decided that it could achieve its ends, nullifying American efforts to build governing institutions in the province, by humiliating him - a punishment many Iraqi men regard as worse than death. They then passed the videotape to the Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera, the most-watched channel in Iraq. "He cried like a woman," one of the Iraqis who watched the tape said, after viewing the governor's reunion with his kidnapped sons in a militant safe house.

At the end of June, Mr. Berjes, a former Anbar police chief under Mr. Hussein, complained in a discussion at Camp Falluja, the Marine base, that his government was riddled with agents of the resistance. "I can no longer trust anybody," Mr. Berjes said in a farewell meeting with L. Paul Bremer III, the departing leader of the American occupation authority. "I don't know if people are working for me, or for the resistance."

Mr. Berjes was visibly shaken, having survived an insurgent ambush on his motorcade as he drove in his old American limousine to the Marine base from Ramadi.

In fact, Iraqis in Anbar say, the governor had become a despised figure, for the same reason as Mr. Alwan, the Anbar police chief - because he too enthusiastically embraced the Americans and took to calling the resistance fighters "terrorists." Following a common ritual among the resistance, militants sent him a note of formal warning, paraphrased by those who say they had been told about it as saying: "We are watching you. Remember that we consider anybody who cooperates with the Americans a traitor, to be killed under Islamic law."

On July 28, assailants entered the governor's residence in Ramadi, snatching his three grown sons and setting fire to the house. The governor got his final warning: repent and resign, or your sons die. His capitulation was broadcast on Aug. 6, in the video now circulating in Anbar markets. Standing under the Zarqawi group's flag, he glumly recites: "I announce my repentance before God and you for any deeds I have committed against the holy warriors or in aid of the infidel Americans. I announce my resignation at this moment. All governors and employees who work with infidel Americans should quit because these jobs are against Islam and Iraqis."

As the governor is reunited with his sons, a voice on the tape recites the Zarqawi group's attacks on public officials in the past three months. "We killed the president of the Iraqi Governing Council, and then the deputy minister of the interior," the voice says. "The minister of justice survived our attack, but we killed the governor of Mosul. And now we have captured the governor of Anbar. The list is just beginning, and is far from finished.'' More than three weeks after Mr. Berjes resigned, the government of Ayad Allawi, seemingly hard put to find anyone to take the job, has yet to appoint a successor.

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.

But leaving the militants in control could pose a disabling threat to American political plans, which may already have been shaken more than American officials will admit by events in Najaf. Top American officials say that events there, with Moktada al-Sadr's militiamen finally driven from the Imam Ali Shrine, have set the stage for a turn in American fortunes across the Shiite heartland of Iraq. But even there the prospects seem deeply clouded by the failure to effectively disarm Mr. Sadr's surviving fighters as they left the shrine with shouldered rifles and donkey carts loaded with rockets.

Mr. Sadr has signed a new pledge to join the democratic political process that will be the final measure of American success here. But he has abrogated similar undertakings, and many of his fighters vowed to take up arms again. Coupled with the militants' control in Anbar, that could unsettle plans for elections scheduled across Iraq by the end of January - the next crucial step toward a fully elected government by January 2006, an event American officials see as a way station on the path to a draw down or withdrawal of the 140,000 American troops here.

Those Americans say a rapid buildup of the new Iraqi Army, the national guard and the police, coupled with gathering momentum in "turning dirt" on the thousands of reconstruction projects financed by $18-billion in American money, should eventually improve security across Iraq. But the Americans acknowledge that a full, nationwide election in January may not be possible. For now, they have identified 15 cities across the Arab parts of Iraq that they contend can be stabilized to make voting in January possible. For the moment, they say, Falluja and Ramadi are not among them.