Meeting the Resistance: In Baghdad’s Back Alleys Speaking with the Iraqis Fighting the Occupation
Issue #
117

When Molly Bingham and I left Baghdad at the end of May 2004, we had 100 hours of video footage that contained the most important story of the Iraq war and one that is still, to this day, the least explored. We had just spent the last ten months talking to “insurgents” — or Iraqi resistance fighters — who violently opposed the presence of foreign armies on their soil. As journalists with more than 30 years of conflict reportage between us, we wanted to understand why these individuals would commit themselves so relentlessly to taking on the most powerful military machine the world has ever seen.

As we drove through the desert toward the border, we knew that we had accumulated what should become the most influential testimony against the war. We already had a name for the documentary — Meeting Resistance — but little did we know that this title would also turn out to be very appropriate to our own efforts to bring this work to a broad U.S. audience. We faced the indisputable reality that the U.S. military and its slick media spin machine was creating a narrative of the war that Americans would come to accept as truth.

REPORTING ON THE WAR

In late spring 2003, we were in Iraq working as photojournalists covering the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion. Civil society had collapsed, Baghdad was in a state of total chaos, and, despite President Bush’s May 1 declaration that major combat operations had ended, the war had not. Small-scale attacks continued to harass the U.S. military in Baghdad and beyond. An incident in Fallujah — in which U.S. troops killed 13 Iraqi demonstrators who had demanded that their children be allowed to return to their school — had become a reason for reprisal attacks against the United States The U.S. military responded with night-time raids, mass arrests and more killing. Each day there were more reports of hit-and-run attacks. Described by one U.S. general as “militarily insignificant,” the continuing violence was blamed — by military spokesmen and U.S. administration officials — on remnants of the Iraqi military, former regime “dead-enders” and, comically, common criminals.

MEETING THE RESISTANCE

One afternoon in mid-May 2003, Molly returned from a day assignment in Baghdad with an intriguing story. She had been sent to northern Baghdad to photograph a mosque — the place Saddam Hussein had last been seen — and was informally escorted around the building and grounds by a man she described as middle-aged, middle class, kindly and gentle. After the photoshoot, her translator continued a conversation with the man for another few minutes before joining Molly in the car. On the way back to the hotel the translator told Molly that the man had revealed himself part of the resistance. That was a word neither of us had heard used to that point. But, in the coming weeks, as we visited the same district to sit and talk with the men in the ubiquitous teashops, we would hear the word in Arabic — muqawma — everywhere we went. It was at that point that we decided to take a deeper look at the cause of the rising violence against the U.S. presence in the country.

At the beginning of August we returned to Baghdad and set out to find the same man Molly had met in May. The Abu Hanifeh mosque in the Adhamiya district had been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the invasion phase of the war and had been the only area of Baghdad that had actually put up a fight against the U.S. military. Within a few days, we found the man and he agreed to speak to us on camera, but on the condition that we obscure his identity at the time of the interview. We were unable to use — or even know — the names of the people we interviewed. We either asked them how they’d like to be known, or we made up a name based on the information these individuals gave us about themselves. This man became known in the film as the Teacher.

The Teacher was a married man with three children in high school or college and had been a lifelong educator. He had never served in the military and held Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in utter contempt, not only for the long years in which they had plundered Iraq, but also for what he regarded as their cowardice and betrayal in the face of the U.S. invasion. During the April 2003 battle in Adhamiya, he had acted as a guide to the Arab fedayeen fighters who had been brought in by the Ba’athists and then abandoned.

“If someone comes and occupies another man’s home and takes away his food, money and property, how could he not defend himself?” the Teacher asks in the film. “A person who doesn’t fight for himself or his country shouldn’t be called a human being.” In the coming months of our investigation we would find this to be a common thread among the people we interviewed. Steeped in a history of centuries of occupation and resistance to foreign dominance, each of the individuals we spoke to had decided, as an act of personal conscience, to stand up and be counted in the fight for their country.

We continued going to Adhamiya on an almost daily basis, sitting in tea shops, smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon. Due to the deeply clandestine nature of the resistance groups, we chose to hang out in the tea shops so they could find us. In all, we managed to speak to about 45 people who claimed to be fighting against the U.S. military. Of those, ten took the additional risk — mitigated by a demand that their identities be concealed — of being interviewed on camera.

After the Teacher, we met the Traveler, the Lieutenant, the Wife and the Warrior, among others. Through these interactions, we became aware of the diversity of the resistance. But all those interviewed seemed to share a calling and a purpose: liberty from foreign interference in the affairs of Iraq and a return to national self-determination. Throughout the fall of 2003 we learned about recruitment and security procedures, sources of funding and how weapons were sourced. We were witnessing the rapid development of a guerrilla army as the small groups that had originally formed within days of the fall of Baghdad — often just friends or trusted acquaintances — coalesced in a search for resources and built leadership hierarchies.

MILITARY SPIN MACHINE

All the while we were reading the papers and watching the television news, seeing how the “enemy” was being defined by the U.S. military and Bush administration. At the daily press conferences in Baghdad and Washington, the meme still included the old favorite descriptions of “die-hards” and “former regime elements,” but had now come to include “foreign fighters” and statements that the violence was being carried out by disaffected members of the Sunni community — with the funding and direction of Saddam Hussein — struggling to regain lost privileges.

The latter was certainly not a description we could apply to the people we were interviewing. With the capture of Saddam on Dec. 13, there was an expectation among the media and public that the violence against U.S. troops would recede, that Iraqis would reconcile themselves to defeat and the United States’ Iraq project could get back on the rails. But, despite the White House and Pentagon propaganda, to the contrary, Saddam — who was hunted and on the run — had never been a factor in the violence. The war continued.

In October 2003, the National Intelligence Council produced a National Intelligence Estimate — coolly received by the White House and Pentagon — in which it was plainly stated that the U.S. military in Iraq was facing a popular nationalist insurgency with deep roots within the society. The report went on to warn that the United States would be fighting a counter-insurgency war for years to come. However, this report did not become public until February 2006 when the chairman of the council, Robert Hutchings, leaked the findings to McClatchy newspapers.

With Saddam in prison, it was time to find a new monster to promote to the leadership of the insurgency. In February 2004, the New York Times rushed to press with the English language translation of a letter allegedly written by Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist who had never been allowed to advance further than the fringes of Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda network. Al Zarqawi had last been heard of in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations a year before in which Al Zarqawi was the person who linked Al Qaeda with the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad. In flowery language, the semiliterate Al Zarqawi bemoaned the failure of the Shi’a of Iraq to rise up against the U.S. occupiers and — lacking the resources to do the job himself — appealed to Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, to assist him in striking at the Iraqi Shi’a community. Experienced international journalists in Baghdad were skeptical as to the authenticity of the letter. Within days, Al Zarqawi was blamed for the bombings in Karbala and Kadhamiya that took the lives of hundreds of innocent worshippers commemorating the Ashura, a Shi’a religious festival.

UNDERSTANDING THE RESISTANCE

In our investigation, the majority of our resistance contacts were involved in a predominantly Sunni insurgency. Although three of the ten individuals we had interviewed were Shi’a, we were still curious as to why there had been no real organized resistance from the Shi’a community itself. In practical terms there is little difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, though this schism within Islam dates back to a leadership struggle following the death of the Prophet. The Shi’a religious leadership — all descendants of Muhammed — claim a right of succession that the Sunni refuse to recognize. From our conversations with people within the Shi’a community, we knew that they were just as nationalistic as the Sunni and equally opposed to the occupation. The common answer, when they were asked why there was not an organized Shi’a violent resistance front, was that no fatwa — or religious directive — had been issued by the senior Shi’a clerics, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. There was disappointment among many of the Sunni fighters, for whom such a directive was unnecessary and who were convinced that if the Shi’a joined the fight they could, together, drive the Americans from the country.

In the aftermath of the Ashura massacre, we wanted to understand the attitudes of the Sunni resistance fighters toward the Shi’a position on the occupation. We were also very interested in their view of the killing of civilians allegedly carried out by Al Zarqawi and his group. What we found was not only an outright condemnation of the attacks, but also a disbelief that this kind of violence could possibly be coming from the community they knew well and of which they were a part. We learned that mixed marriages were a commonplace in Iraq — particularly in Baghdad, where in the year before the invasion, half the marriages registered in the city were between mixed couples — and that there was a level of interrelatedness that would necessitate killing close relatives in the event of the kind of sectarian civil war, Al Zarqawi claimed to be provoking. But it would be more than two years before we learned that the “leakage” of the Al Zarqawi letter to the Times was part of an elaborate psychological operations campaign carried out by the U.S. military — at a cost of millions of dollars — to “leverage a xenophobic response” among the Iraqi people by promoting a Jordanian as the leader of the insurgency and what seemed like a deliberate effort to falsely link the war in Iraq with the fight against Al Qaeda in the mind of the U.S. public. However, there has still been no mention of the blowback that resulted from the campaign. Although the U.S. military claims the operation was aimed at the Iraqi public, it had little or no effect on them —probably because they simply didn’t believe the story. However, the U.S. public, with little or no appreciation for Iraqi culture, society or politics, accepted the information at face value. Moreover, many across the Middle East similarly believed the Al Zarqawi myth, and as a result, people in Arab countries began redirecting their funding to Al Zarqawi, giving him cash, resources, power and prestige.

A NATION IN CHAOS

There had long been a campaign of assassinations against nationalist intellectuals — doctors, lawyers, university professors — primarily, but not exclusively, in the Sunni community. The attacks were widely thought to be carried out by the Badr Corps — the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI ), which had spent 20 years in exile in Iran —which had been created, funded and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Along with the Kurdish Peshmerga troops, these soldiers formed the only effective Iraqi military unit the United States could put up against the insurgency, and it did so in Fallujah in early April 2004. The United States pitted Shi’a and Kurdish forces against the Sunni community, further exacerbating the tensions already created by a sectarian political structure built by Ambassador Paul Bremer. It seemed to us that the Americans, both politically and militarily, were fomenting a civil war.

At the end of March, the U.S. nightmare began. Bremer had ordered the closure of Moqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper and then issued an arrest warrant for murder against one of Al-Sadr’s close associates. Al-Sadr’s followers in Baghdad, the poor, disenfranchised, working-class Shi’a from the poverty stricken Sadr City district, had been restive for months, and this was their opportunity to get involved in the anti-occupation fight. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army attacked U.S. troops in Sadr City, resulting in a counter-attack by U.S. troops with artillery fire, heavy armor and helicopter gunships. The Sadrists crossed the river from Kadhamiya to Adhamiya to fight alongside the Sunnis and, in addition to providing humanitarian aid to Fallujah — which at the time was besieged as a result of the killing of four Blackwater security contractors — sent fighters to the city in a show of militant solidarity. However, despite the claims that a united front would drive the Americans from the country, this effort was not an enormous military threat, and the Mahdi soldiers’ willingness to throw themselves, almost suicidally, at the U.S. armor made them easy fodder in the battles that would ensue through the summer of 2004.

Grand Ayatollah al Sistani, the Shi’a supreme religious authority, demanded that elections be held as soon as was practical and for the Americans, stalling a political process would have been immediately disastrous. But instead of moving toward a provincial ballot and building national representation from a local base, the Americans saw their interests best served by holding national elections through which the exile groups — with whom they had long-standing alliances —would be able to maintain power. A popular anti-occupation nationalist coalition that was able to build upon the cohesion of the cross-sectarian nationalist uprising would inevitably sweep to power in any electoral contest. As we would see in the coming months and years, a protracted car-bombing campaign against the Shi’a would drive wedges into this nascent alliance and give the incipient civil war a distinctly sectarian façade. That would eventually take a turn for the worse in the aftermath of the Samarra shrine bombing in February 2006, when the target of the attack was not the physical bodies of the Sadrists but their belief system. Our time in Iraq was coming to an end.

Adhamiya was becoming increasingly hostile after Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, and as a result, we felt that we had run out of people we could talk to. We had last seen the Teacher more than a month before when he had become jittery about the possibilities of being informed on by someone seeking to collect the $2,500 reward posted by the Americans for information about members of the resistance. People were being executed on suspicion of being informers as the society began turning in on itself. Family against family, tribe against tribe and sect against sect, the country was being inexorably marched toward civil war by the pressure of the U.S. need for victory. Finally, the Warrior had been ordered by his commander — under the threat of death — not to meet with us again lest he compromise the security of his group. Our window of opportunity had firmly closed, and it was time to leave.

CONNECTING TO U.S. AUDIENCES

Upon returning to the United States in 2004, we expected our material to be snatched up by networks or cable channels eager to have their viewers understand something about America’s opponents in Iraq — why and against whom were they were sending their young men and women to kill, and to be killed by, in a faraway land.

We were wrong and, despite there being no doubts as to the veracity or quality of the material we had collected or the underlying journalistic practices and principles to which we adhered, we hit one wall after another. When several months of negotiations with senior producers of almost every documentary television slot in the country fell through, we realized that we had little choice but to produce the film ourselves.

Now, with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq upon us, we continue to travel across the United States showing our documentary to one audience at a time. Everywhere we go — even when we are invited to screen for military audiences — the film is showing to packed houses. As the credits roll and the lights go up in the theater, there’s an almost discernible creak of shifting paradigms as audience members attempt to reconcile what they have just seen with what they had previously understood about Iraq. We then spend most of the next hour answering questions, trying to unpack the underlying propaganda, disinformation and downright dishonesty that have informed most Americans’ understanding of the Iraq war. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld: You go to war with the enemy you have, not the one you wish you had.

It is high time people came to understand who the enemy truly is.


Steve Connors is a British photojournalist and the co-director of Meeting Resistance. For more info, see meetingresistance.com.

Photos: Shi’a Muslims in Sadr City express their anger as they prepare to
donate blood for Sunni Muslims injured in Fallujah when U.S. forces bombed a mosque there in April 2004.

On the day before the first anniversary of the invasion in March 2004, thousands
of Shi’a and Sunni Iraqis protested for an end to the U.S.-led occupation in a strong show of unity between the two religious groups. Photos by Andrew Stern.
AndrewStern.net