'We don't need al-Qaida' Abu Theeb is the leader of a band of Sunni insurgents that preys on US targets north of Baghdad. Last week he openly defied al-Qaida in Iraq by actively supporting the referendum. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad spent five days with him - and uncovered evidence of a growing split in the insurgency Thursday October 27, 2005The Guardian
Abu Theeb is a tall, handsome, well-built man with a thin beard and thick eyebrows. His name is a nom de guerre: it means Father of the Wolf. He is a farmer during daylight and a commander of a mujahideen cell, a group of holy warriors, at night. He and his men roam the farmland north of Baghdad in search of prey - a US armoured Humvee, perhaps, or an Iraqi army unit. On the eve of last week's constitutional referendum, Abu Theeb, the leader of a group of Sunni insurgents, was to be found in the middle of a schoolyard in a village north of Baghdad. The school was to be a polling centre the next day. He stood flanked by 10 bearded fighters in white robes and chequered headscarves.
There were a few posters on the walls, and plastic ribbons marking out lanes where voters would queue, but other than Abu Theeb and his men, the building was deserted. The security guards hired by the referendum committee in Baghdad had failed to show up - not all that surprising an event in one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq. The local tribe, ie Abu Theeb and co, are notorious for kidnappings and executions.
Abu Theeb looked around him, a commander inspecting the field before battle. He moved with his men around the school, inspecting the adjacent streets and the back gate, looking for weak points, looking for easy access for a car bomb or an armed onslaught. The school guard sheepishly followed the entourage around, a Kalashnikov on one shoulder.
At one point, Abu Theeb grabbed a piece of paper and drew a sketch of the school, marking out where his men should be posted the next day. He turned to a short, chubby ginger-haired guy in his 30s with a big jihadi beard. "You will be the commander tomorrow," he said. "Distribute some of our weapons to the men."
The stakes were high for Abu Theeb and his men. Al-Qaida forces in Iraq - forces that are, at least on paper, allies of the Sunni insurgents - had vowed to kill anyone who took part in the referendum. But in the Sunni areas of Iraq, the people and the local Iraqi insurgents among them had a different view: they were eager to vote. There was a widespread sense of regret about the boycotting of the last elections, which left the parliament in Baghdad dominated by Shia and Kurdish parties - and left the Sunnis, who held the power in Saddam's Iraq, out in the cold. The Sunnis wanted to take part in last week's referendum; they wanted a "no" vote on the draft constitution.
This left Abu Theeb, a man who has devoted himself and his resources to fighting the Americans, in a curious position. His battle on polling day would be to secure a safe and smooth voting for his people - in a referendum organised by the enemy. In doing so he would be going up against the al-Qaida forces, and risking a split in the insurgency in Iraq.
I spent five days with Abu Theeb and his people last week, and I witnessed a very curious thing: a bunch of mujahideens talking politics and urging restraint. "Politics for us is like filthy dead meat," Abu Theeb told me. "We are not allowed to eat it, but if you are passing through the desert and your life depends on it, God says it's OK." This is a profound shift in thinking for these insurgents, a shift that might just change the way things develop in Iraq.
While we were at the school, Abu Theeb pulled one of his young men aside and rebuked him for an IED - improvised explosive device - bombing the night before: "I thought we agreed that nothing will happen for the next few days." The short young man mumbled that it wasn't his group - someone else must have done it.
Abu Theeb's village, where the polling station was based, is a small hamlet that lies on the banks of the Tigris river north of Baghdad. A serpent-like road passes through the village. The palm groves on either side of the road are pockmarked by bomb craters.
A couple of thousand Sunni Arabs from one tribe live here. Everyone is related; they say they can trace their history back to the prophet Muhammad. Women are rarely seen in public and almost everyone is a fundamentalist Salafi Muslim. The men sport big bushy beards and wear ankle-length dishdashas [robes]. Mosques are scattered everywhere and at prayer time the place grinds to a halt.
There are two ways into the village. The official way in takes you through a 100m-long checkpoint of blast walls, concrete barriers and barbed wire. It is manned by masked Shia Iraqi soldiers from the south of the country and commanded by US soldiers. Cars and cards are checked regularly and the roads are closed down, forcing people to drive for hours through the farmlands around the village before hitting the main road again. Driving in and out through this checkpoint reminds one of a second world war movie of an eastern European town under German occupation. The locals call the checkpoint the Rafah crossing, in reference to the notorious checkpoint in Gaza.
Then there is the unofficial way in. A narrow, bumpy farm road provides the mujahideens with safe access into the village away from the weary eyes of the Iraqi soldiers. This is the road Abu Theeb took in last week. I went with him on condition that I did nothing to reveal his identity or the location of the village. For the purposes of the assignment, I was advised to pray, fast and dress like the men of the village, although I am not religious.
The road to jihad
Abu Theeb was born in this village four decades ago. He was one of five brothers and several sisters and his father was an illiterate farmer who went everywhere with his short-wave radio and loved to talk politics. In the 80s, Abu Theeb's eldest brother was killed fighting in the Iran-Iraq war.
Abu Theeb studied law at university in Baghdad before joining the Institute of National Security, an elite academy reserved mostly for Sunni Arabs. It was the graduates of this academy who were used to staff Saddam's secret services; Abu Theeb was a loyal citizen, and he went on to a job in the security services. But his nationalism evaporated after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. "I hated the government," he says. "I realised that all that they were telling us about the nation and the leader was false. They had no pride, no honour. I wanted to leave, to take a long break, so I left the service to do religious studies."
He joined an Islamic Sharia school to train as a cleric. There he fell in love with two subjects: the teachings of Ibn Taimia, the father of the fundamentalist Salafi school of thinking, and religious politics. Later, however, he was obliged to return to his old job at the Amn al-Aam, the General Security, one of Saddam's feared security apparatuses, and there he stayed until the American occupation toppled the regime.
"When the fall happened, I went to a cleric I knew who was preaching jihad and asked him for weapons," he says. "I was weeping. He said, 'Go away, things are too dangerous.' I roamed the streets with a dagger in my pocket. I was too ashamed to come back home and see my family while Baghdad was under the occupation, dead bodies and bullet shells everywhere."
He finally met up with a group of Syrian volunteers in Baghdad. They, like him, were looking for a fight with the Americans. He brought them back to his home, he says, and formed one of the first jihadi cells. They got to work.
"When the infidel conquers your home, it's like seeing your women raped in front of your eyes and like your religion being insulted every day," says Abu Theeb.
He joined others and started first with direct rocket-propelled grenade hits and small arms attacks on US convoys around his area, until a fellow Salafi fighter taught him how to set an IED using primitive techniques, a TV remote control and some artillery shells.
A visiting Iraqi army general laid the ground rules for the group: IEDs were the most successful weapon, but should always be laid at least two kilometres outside the village to spare the people the wrath of the Americans.
"Everyone was fighting, men who under Saddam spent years as military deserters became zealous fighters," says Abu Theeb. "Something like fire was inside us. We would go out to fight for days, leaving our families and wives behind."
He and other Salafi fighters became known as the Anger Brigade, an insurgent group that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on US and Iraqi targets and is involved in kidnapping those who are perceived as collaborating with the much-hated occupation.
This is truly a holy war for Abu Theeb. He tells me how once he was driving to Baghdad carrying a sack filled with anti-tank rocket heads for an operation in Baghdad. He was stopped at a checkpoint and American soldiers ordered him to step out and begun a car search. "I prayed to God," he says. "I told him, 'God, if I am doing what I am doing for your sake then spare me this. If it's not, let them get me.' The American soldier opened the boot where I had the sack filled with rocket heads. He moved it aside and started to search. When he finished and asked me to leave, I knew then I was blessed by God."
God has not been so merciful with the rest of his family. One of his brothers and a nephew have died fighting the Americans; another brother was killed a month ago as he was setting an IED on the side of the road. But Abu Theeb's faith remains strong.
For more than two years, Abu Theeb had been taking part in insurgent attacks on US and Iraqi targets, laying IEDs, carrying out ambushes and kidnappings. Then, about eight months ago, a group of Syrian men visited him. They identified themselves as part of the al-Qaida group in Iraq, and they asked for his cooperation in establishing a foothold for their organisation in his area. "They told me that they had support and money and wanted to open a new front here," says Abu Theeb. "I said to them, 'What about the village - do you want this to become a new Fallujah?'" Abu Theeb didn't want al-Qaida, even if their aims were ostensibly the same. "When al-Qaida came here I was the first to fight it," he says. "They went to the clerics and said, 'Denounce this man. If not, your blood will be spilled.' They can kill and slaughter easily."
Abu Theeb and other Salafi clerics and leaders of the insurgency north and south of Baghdad are now talking about a rift - a split between Iraqi Islamist and nationalistic insurgent groups, and the mainly foreign led and supported al-Qaida forces. They say that al-Qaida initially gained support among the Sunnis because of its ferocity and meticulous planning, and because it had money pouring in from jihadis all over the Arab world. Made up mostly of foreign Arabs, it quickly became the most feared insurgent group in Iraq, claiming responsibility for the bloodiest attacks against not only US and Iraqi forces but also civilians.
"If it wasn't al-Qaida fighting with the Sunnis in Iraq the whole battle would have had a different outcome," says Abu Hafsa, another mujahideen commander based north of Baghdad. Abu Qutada, a mujahideen leader based in south Baghdad, agrees. "Lots of the mujahideen groups are in need of money and weapons so they join the umbrella of al-Qaida for support," he says. But he adds: "They differ with them in ideology."
The arrival of al-Qaida
The tipping point came when al-Qaida, known then as the Tawhid al-Jihad, decided to target the Iraqi police and army and other Iraqi ministries and institutions. Its goal was to prevent the Americans establishing an Iraqi state that could lead the fight against the insurgency - and allow the Americans to take a back seat. "They have experience in fighting and they did very clever stuff," says Abu Theeb. "They attacked all the centres of the Iraqi state and prevented the Americans from creating a puppet state that they could hand everything to. The Iraqi resistance was occupied by fighting the Americans and couldn't see that strategic goal."
Perhaps inevitably, though, the insurgents turned out not to have the same stomach for Iraqi blood. "Al-Qaida believes that anyone who doesn't follow the Qur'an literally is a Kaffir - apostate - and should be killed," says Abu Theeb. "This is wrong."
Al-Qaida marked down not only those who cooperated with the American occupation, but everyone who worked with the Iraqi government, police or army, as Kaffirs. Then they said that the entire Shia community were Kaffirs. For Sunnis like Abu Theeb, this was a step too far.
The second serious stumbling block has been al-Qaida's call for the establishment of an Islamic state (caliphate) based on the Taliban model in Afghanistan. This has already started taking place in towns and villages where al-Qaida is dominant. "The resistance now is made up of nationalist and religious elements," says Abu Theeb. "By calling for a caliphate you will alienate not only the resistance but the support we get from Syria and the gulf countries." The last thing these countries want is a Taliban state as a neighbour.
Al-Qaida's policies have drawn a furious response from the Iraqi security forces and the Shia militias, and it is Sunnis who have suffered. Scores have been executed after being kidnapped by paramilitary units. In Abu Theeb's area alone, more than 300 Sunni families have taken refuge after fleeing Shia areas in Baghdad. "Every time al-Qaida attacks a Shia mosque we are making all the Shias our enemies," he says. "We are cementing them against us." Later he says: "We have lost more men to the Shias than we have lost to the Americans."
This rift in the insurgency has already gone far beyond angry words. Clashes erupted between al-Qaida fighters and Iraqi mujahideen cells after al-Qaida killed a group of Iraqi insurgents who they claimed were spying for the Americans.
Back in the village, politics has become a hot issue. Everywhere - in the mosques after prayers, at weddings, in the main market and in private mujahideen circles - the talk is of politics. Abu Theeb says his move into politics has come at a price: he has had to shave off his beard so that he can visit Baghdad. For weeks he has been travelling, visiting houses, urging people to register to vote. "It's a new jihad," he says. "There is time for fighting and a time for politics."
I went back to the school with Abu Theeb on polling day. There was a festival atmosphere. Two of his guards were already at their positions, but the rest were more relaxed - their weapons lay against the wall and on tables.
"No one will attack," said Abu Theeb. Inside the classroom that had become the polling station, an old sheik sat on a wooden bench. "The judge and the monitors didn't come from Baghdad - they said this is a hot area - so the sheik of the village is going be the monitor," said Abu Theeb. People began to trickle in. The officials present soon decided that it was not realistic to expect the women to come in, so each man who came in with an ID card was given a whole stack of ballot papers. "Nine papers to Haji Abu Hussein," shouted a registration official. Another official sitting on another table handed Haji Abu Hussein the nine ballots. The man took his ballots, but instead of voting in private in the ballot box, he publicly ticked the "no" boxes, folded the papers, and then chucked them in the box.
By midday people had stopped coming and the officials started ticking the boxes on ballot papers themselves. The next day, America and the authorities were crowing about how well the referendum had gone; yesterday - after a "yes" vote had been returned - leading Sunni politicians accused the Shia in the south of stuffing ballot boxes. Well, some of the Sunnis in the north are certainly guilty of it.
Two days after the balloting, Abu Theeb and two other clerics sat on the floor of a mosque debating the political future of their group and the Sunnis in general. "We should keep all the options open," Abu Theeb told them. Even a coalition with the enemy.