Military history


The Revolution Devours Its Own

THE MAN WHO called himself Abu Marwa sat in the half-light of a Baghdad house, his face shrouded by the shadows of a room without electricity. The capital was nearly always without power now, and the curtains were shut to the outside world to hide the men inside. Abu Marwa grumbled about having to come to Baghdad, which was teeming with American soldiers. After much deliberation, he agreed to make the drive from Yusufiya, twenty miles to the south.

Abu Marwa’s three comrades were arrayed in the couches and chairs around him. Like the man himself, they were members of the Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the busiest insurgent groups in the country. They wore checked kafiyas and white dishdashas. Their faces were crisscrossed and dry, and they talked with hoarse voices through their own cigarette smoke. It wasn’t hard to imagine them triggering a bomb beneath an American Humvee. Abu Marwa stood slightly apart: he was thirty-two years old, wore blue jeans and a yellow button-down shirt. His face was clean-shaven, and it had the unlined look of a student’s. He’d been a captain in the Iraqi army.

Abu Marwa had not come to talk about the Americans. There was something else. With a nod of his head, he got down to his story.

“According to our Iraqi tribal traditions and beliefs, each tribe must take revenge for the death of one of its members,” he said. “This is a solemn obligation, even if it means you must kill a member of Al-Qaeda.”

Everyone agreed about the need to kill Americans, Abu Marwa said. There was no argument about that. The trouble, he said, was that Al-Qaeda was killing not just Americans but Iraqis, too. Al-Qaeda was bombing Shiite mosques, public markets, murdering Iraqi civilians by the thousands. Al-Qaeda’s war, he said, had nothing to do with his own.

“You have to differentiate between the real resistance and Al-Qaeda,” Abu Marwa said, sitting in the shadows at the corner of the room. “We want to liberate our country. We want to rid our country of the Americans. We are the real resistance.

“Al-Qaeda attacks even though many Iraqis are around their targets,” he said. “They have done this repeatedly.

“Sunni, Shia—this means nothing to us,” he said.

AMERICAN AND IRAQI officials had been trying for months to exploit the fissures between the Sunni insurgents. On one side stood the Iraqi nationalist groups like the Islamic Army, of which Abu Marwa was a member, whose goal was to drive the Americans out of Iraq. On the other stood the ultraviolent Islamists of Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunnah, who wanted to resurrect the Islamic caliphate of bygone days. These groups were fanatically pro-Sunni, and they were murdering Shiite civilians. The Americans believed that the nationalists like Abu Marwa could be placated, and perhaps even turned against the Islamists. But so far there had been scant evidence of any such shift.

It was finally happening. Ordinary Iraqis were turning against Al-Qaeda. I had been hearing about clashes between nationalist insurgents and Al-Qaeda terrorists taking place across the Sunni Triangle. A civil war of sorts was breaking out inside the insurgency itself.

“Al-Qaeda killed two people from our group,” one of the insurgents said from his place on the couch. “They repeatedly kill our people.”

The man who spoke was Abu Lil. He smoked Marlboros and spoke in a gravelly voice, and he’d sunk so far into the couch that he had to tilt his head upward to speak. “We confronted Al-Qaeda about this, fifteen months ago,” he said. “In a farmhouse outside of Mosul. Five of us and about twenty-five men from Al-Qaeda. They were mostly foreigners. Pakistanis and people from—I am not sure—Indonesia. These men didn’t speak Arabic. They required a translator.”

That two insurgent groups would meet with one another was not unusual; the groups often shared expertise and talent, and combined forces for big operations, Abu Lil said. This was different. Abu Lil and the others at the meeting told the Al-Qaeda fighters they were unhappy about the murder of Iraqi civilians. A few days before, Abu Lil said, an Al-Qaeda attack in Baghdad had killed two American soldiers and several Iraqis who happened to be standing nearby. The incident prompted Abu Lil and the others to ask for the meeting. The Al-Qaeda fighters were unmoved.

“They said, ‘Jihad needs its victims,’” Abu Lil said. “‘Iraqis should be willing to pay the price.’

“We said, ‘That is very expensive.’”

After seven hours, the meeting ended, he said. Abu Lil and his comrades walked out feeling powerless and angry.

“I wished I had a nuclear bomb to attack them,” he said. “We told them, ‘You are not Iraqis. Who gave you the power to do this?’”

Let me give you another example, Abu Marwa said. He was seated in the far side of the living room, in a chair in the corner. Only a few months before, he said, Al-Qaeda gunmen kidnapped his uncle, Abu Taha—who, like Abu Marwa’s mother, was a Shiite. Abu Marwa, like all the other insurgents in the room, was a Sunni. Groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Army were overwhelmingly Sunni. But Abu Marwa’s case was common; many of Iraq’s Sunnis had, through marriage, Shiite relatives. Intermarriage—and relations between Sunni and Shiite—lay at the heart of Abu Marwa’s fight with Al-Qaeda. When he discovered his uncle had been kidnapped, Abu Marwa began a frantic search through the villages and towns south of Baghdad.

At the time, Abu Marwa said, each of the Sunni villages in the area around Yusufiya, where his own family lived, was under the exclusive control of one or another insurgent group, which competed for territory. Each village was like a fief in a gang war. When the insurgents wanted to travel into a village their group did not control, they needed permission to enter from the dominant group.

And so Abu Marwa began to scour the lush farmlands around Yusufiya, walking the orchards at night, often under escort. He would reach the end of territory controlled by Mohammad’s Army, he said, and then a fighter from that group would introduce him to a fighter of Ansar al-Sunnah, where its fief began.

After three days, Abu Marwa said, he made it to the outskirts of Karagol, a village about ten miles from Yusufiya. According to the locals, his uncle had been taken there.

“Karagol is an Al-Qaeda village,” Abu Marwa said. “When the American patrols come through Karagol, they have no idea of this. They just drive through, and Al-Qaeda just watches them.”

One of the escorts, he said, finally took him into Karagol, and then to the house of a local man said to be one of Al-Qaeda’s executioners. Before departing, the escort told Abu Marwa to beware, that the executioner was a brutal, psychotic man, who kept, among other things, the heads of his victims as souvenirs. Abu Marwa walked the final steps to the house alone, he said, and Al-Qaeda’s hired killer asked him inside. “The executioner examined a ledger with a long list of names, and Abu Taha was not there,” he said.

I winced in disbelief at this fantastic turn of the tale.

“By God’s name it is true!” Abu Marwa said. “He was the man who did the beheading for Al-Qaeda. So many beheadings.”

The other insurgents looked on impassively. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the air.

This was one of those moments in Iraq, not the first, when I felt like I had drifted far from the world I thought I knew. The whole tale, of course, might have been a concoction. Abu Marwa himself might have been a fake. And that was the thing about Iraq: you were untethered, floating free, figuring out the truth by a different set of standards. But Abu Marwa felt real; I could feel that in my gut. And as fantastic as his tale was, it rang true. Al-Qaeda suspects had told Iraqi interrogators on other occasions that they had collected skulls and skeletons and kept lists of their victims, in order to gain plaudits from their superiors. In 2005, for instance, an Iraqi man confessed at his trial to cutting the eyes out of a police officer he had killed and putting them in his pocket so he could bring them to the sheikh who wanted the officer dead.

Failing to find his uncle, Abu Marwa said, he continued into the center of Karagol, where another local warned him to stay away. “‘I advise you, if you know he’s with Al-Qaeda, don’t go there,’” Abu Marwa recalled the man saying.

Abu Marwa found his uncle in the local morgue a few days later. His legs had been drilled by electric power tools. His jaw had slid to one side of his head, and his nose had been broken. Burn marks peppered his body. His knees were raw, as if he had been dragged. “I was totally crazy,” Abu Marwa said. “A mad man was more rational than me.”

Abu Marwa called a meeting of his local group, Thunder, a cell loyal to the Islamic Army. After several days, he said, the group’s intelligence network had determined that two Syrian members of Al-Qaeda were responsible for the killing, Abu Ghassan and Abu Wadhah, jihadis from Aleppo. “After many meetings, we decided to terminate the men from Al-Qaeda,” he said.

Abu Marwa said he realized that by taking on Al-Qaeda he would be putting himself and his comrades in the Islamic Army in exceptional danger. “It’s more than crazy when you want to hit Al-Qaeda,” Abu Marwa said. “Even the entire network of the resistance couldn’t think of doing such an act.”

Within days, Abu Marwa and his buddies in the Thunder cell had tracked down the Syrian gunmen. Within a couple of weeks, they devised an intricate ambush. In their beige Opel sedan, the Syrians regularly drove a desolate stretch of road. There, on the roadside, four of Abu Marwa’s comrades parked in a BMW. When the Syrians approached, the insurgents, appearing to be troubled travelers with a flat tire, flagged them down. “They pretended they didn’t have a jack,” Abu Marwa said. As soon as the Syrians pulled over, the insurgents shot them dead.

“When my uncle was killed, I promised my aunt that I would avenge his death,” he said. She had answered, Abu Marwa said, by repeating an Arabic saying that is often invoked and rarely acted on: Ashrab min Damhum, I will drink their blood.

After they killed the Syrians, Abu Marwa took their kafiyas and brought them to his aunt, proof that revenge had been taken. She accepted them with gratitude. And then Abu Marwa presented her with a vial of the killers’ blood.

“She drank the blood of the Syrians,” Abu Marwa said, still seated in the couch, in the darkness. “You see. We were for revenge. She was filled with rage.”

As I stood up to leave, the electricity returned and the house brightened suddenly, giving the room the feeling of a theater at movie’s end. I left the house first, and Abu Marwa and his three comrades stayed behind.

The Normal

IT WAS 9 P.M. in June and the heat lingered heavy in the dark. Joao, my colleague and photographer, and I were waiting for a chopper to Anbar Province. We were in the Green Zone, at Landing Zone Washington, where the helicopters flew in and flew away. We had no choice but to fly at night; we were going with the marines. The army guys could fly whenever they wanted with their Black Hawks, which raced and weaved like sports cars over the flat Iraqi landscape. But the marines, with their lumbering Sea Stallions leftover from Vietnam, did not have such luxury. When they flew during the day they got shot down.

It was 120 Fahrenheit, so we sat inside the air-conditioned trailer next to the LZ. There was a refrigerator with all the shelves removed and filled with liter-size bottles of cold water. We drank those for a while and watched television with the soldiers. They had it tuned to a station that was showing music videos, and we watched Depeche Mode sing “John the Revelator.” The video showed President Bush speaking about Iraq and each time he did a graphic flashed on the screen that said, “Lie, Lie, Lie.” The soldiers watched the screen with blank faces. The guy at the desk told us it would be three hours until the next chopper came. Joao and I walked over to the Green Bean Café, next to the American embassy and Saddam’s former swimming pool. The café was closed, but a couple of Iraqi janitors pointed us up the road. “Kebab,” one of them said, nodding into the blackness. A kebab stand inside the American zone: it was not so far-fetched. There was an entire Iraqi neighborhood inside the Green Zone called Tashreeya, which had been sandwiched inside the protected area when the Americans put the walls up in 2003. About five thousand Iraqis were said to be living there, but the Americans didn’t let anyone near it.

Joao and I walked alongside the Green Zone’s main highway, our way illuminated by the passing cars. It was illegal to do what we were doing—walking around the Green Zone unescorted. If we were caught, the embassy guards would kick us out. In that way, as in so many others, the Green Zone felt like high school—a tiny world filled with jocks, nerds and hall monitors who ratted out their classmates who broke the rules.

Joao and I walked along the road for about twenty minutes, until sure enough, in the distance, we spotted a glow. A kebab stand! We walked faster. The Iraqi kebab man was just closing, pulling shut the aluminum shutters on his stand. “Kebab?” we asked. “All finished,” he said with a wave. He apologized, appearing genuinely sorry that he could not serve us. He nodded up the road. Joao walked some more, spotting another glow. A grocery store! We practically ran. It was still open; the owner was sweeping up for the night. Joao and I were so hungry we bought a couple of cans of Pepsi and a pack of cookies. When we asked about kebab, the owner motioned down a side street.

Joao and I turned right and walked into Tashreeya. It was as if we had stepped into a dream: nine o’clock and the streets were alive, teeming with people. A group of kids kicked a soccer ball while their parents looked on. A middle-aged couple walked past and waved. Women walked with unfurled hair; they wore dresses with their calves exposed. Outside of the Green Zone, in Baghdad—in so much of the rest of Iraq—there had not been a scene like this in many years. Outside, the streets of Iraq were dead. Here in Tashreeya, the chaos had never come.

We stopped one of the kids in the street and asked him about a restaurant. He motioned for us to follow. We turned a corner and there it was: an outdoor kebab restaurant open at night, something unseen in Baghdad in three years. Iraqis—mostly men—sat around plastic tables, picking at their food. The faint murmur of Arabic music wafted in the air: there was even electricity at night. The embers from the grill glowed in the dark.

Joao and I sat down. I worried that we might unsettle the Iraqis—because Americans were not allowed in. Before the war, Tashreeya, given its proximity to Saddam’s palace, had been filled with Tikritis, members of Saddam’s very tribe. Now the area had been taken over by Shiites. The Iraqis looked over at us, looked us up and down. But they turned back to their food. They didn’t seem to mind. I felt indifference, perhaps even warmth: more relics from 2003. It was just shy of 11 p.m. when our plates came. Kebabs and pita bread and hummus and green peppers. Marvelous.

It was then that the Iraqis started getting up from their tables. Quietly and without fanfare, they all got up, nearly in unison, and walked away. I was stunned. There was no curfew here, as in the rest of Iraq. Perhaps I had misread them; perhaps it was not friendliness I had felt. With my white polo shirt and my blue jeans, I could have passed for a CIA agent. “Maybe they think there is going to be a raid,” Joao said.

And then we remembered. It was June 25: the second round of the 2006 World Cup was coming on at 11 p.m., as it had every night over the past two weeks. Tonight, Portugal was playing the Netherlands, via satellite from a stadium in Luxembourg. The Iraqis had televisions and electricity and were leaving to indulge their national passion. As Joao and I walked out of Tashreeya and back toward the landing zone, we saw in the windows of the Iraqis’ apartments a long succession of glowing blue lights.

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