|News and opinions on situation in Iraq|
|07/04/04||Sunnis and Shi'ites unite in resistance By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff|
BAGHDAD — Two neighborhoods accustomed to looking at each other over the barrels of drawn guns yesterday found common ground in their hatred of America.
Aadhamiya, a Sunni Muslim stronghold that has been a hotbed of resistance in the capital since US forces entered this city a year ago this week, and Kadhimiya, the heart of Baghdad's middle class and most politically moderate Shi'ite Muslim community, face each other across the Tigris River. Over the last year, they have seen sporadic sectarian violence, with Sunnis and Shi'ites crossing the bridge dividing their two neighborhoods to kill rival clerics and suspected collaborators.
Yesterday, however, gunmen in both neighborhoods had nothing but kind words for one another, as Sunni insurgents mounted a surprise attack on US troops, capitalizing on the strife and disorder created by the violence in Shi'ite areas of the city under the sway of the radical Army of the Mahdi. "I think the Shi'a should have started earlier. We welcome them to the struggle," said Ali Midhat, 31, a devout Sunni who works in a stationery store 30 feet from the Aadhamiya police station entrance and watched the fighting that raged there for six hours after evening prayers. An urban guerrilla war of resistance — even if it does not rise to the level of a mass popular uprising — is one of the greatest fears of the US-led occupation authority and the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council charged with leading the country to independence. If the situation does spiral into a broader-based resistance — one that draws together Iraqis across the religious and political spectrum — it would look a lot like Aadhamiya and Kadhimiya did yesterday. "The Americans crossed oceans to come to us and spread their Western culture, molding our religion into their Western model," Midhat said. "This is why the Muslims rise up in jihad."
On Monday night, insurgents in Aadhamiya staged their boldest and largest attack against US troops since April 10 of last year, when fighters of Saddam Hussein's fanatical Fedayeen militia battled advancing Americans from the Abu Hanifa mosque until 20 of them were killed, in some of the city center's fiercest fighting.
The predominantly Sunni fighters in Aadhamiya are called mujahedeen, or freedom fighters, although in conversation some of them betray their pasts by referring to themselves as Fedayeen.
More than 100 insurgents, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, and machine guns, surprised US troops in the neighborhood with a two-pronged attack Monday night.
First, gunmen fired in the air in front of Abu Hanifa mosque, "to draw them onto the field of battle," said a 22-year-old who gave only his nom de guerre, Abdullah. Then they attacked a police station about a half-mile away.
"They took the bait," he said.
His left hand is disfigured from a bullet wound that etched a spiderweb of scars from his wrist to the base of his fingers, and left his pinky finger hanging limp and useless; he was shot defending the Baghdad airport from US troops last April, he said.
His right hand was still covered in blood yesterday, half a day after the fighting ceased. He had dragged the body of a fellow fighter, Ahmed, and his rocket-propelled grenade launcher, from the street after he was shot to death by US troops the night before.
"We don't want the Americans and we don't want their freedom," Abdullah said, standing by a Volkswagen crushed by a tank. "Iraq will be their graveyard."
The people of Aadhamiya have built a special graveyard for "freedom fighters" who were killed fighting the Americans. That's where the fighters Ahmed, 21, and Yasir, 19, were buried yesterday, in the shade of a fig tree, the mounds of earth covered with an Iraqi flag and marked with fresh-cut palm fronds. They joined 60 others killed and buried at Abu Hanifa since last April 10.
"I hope the graveyard fills up," said its caretaker, Mohammed al-Shalchi. "That means the resistance has not ceased." On Monday night, US soldiers called in tanks and helicopter gunships to drive back an estimated 100 fighters who fired rockets at the police station and peppered it with gunfire for about six hours after nightfall, Iraqi police sergeant Ali al-Louabi said.
A US sergeant in the First Armored Division said the attacks caught the Americans by surprise. As his commander searched Aadhamiya's Nouman Hospital around noon yesterday for wounded fighters who might have sought treatment there, about 10 hours after the last firefight, the sergeant described Aadhamiya as "not very friendly." But, he added, troops only expected new attacks in predominantly Shi'ite neighborhoods. Kadhimiya, the city's oldest Shi'ite neighborhood, has been generally calm because the people there have lived in Baghdad for generations and consider themselves a class apart from the poorer Shi'ites who follow cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
That calm was shattered late Monday and early yesterday, when three US soldiers were killed in Kadhimiya in separate ambushes using rocket-propelled grenades.
Yesterday, more than a hundred members of the Army of the Mahdi crammed the courtyard of Sadr's headquarters, just down the street from the gold-domed shrine of al-Khadum. "What are you doing in here? Get out on the streets! Get out on the rooftops!" a commander screamed after taking orders from the senior cleric, Sayyed Hazim al-A'aragi, who reported that American soldiers had entered a nearby Sadr office.Within a half-hour, Mahdi fighters ordered civilians to flee the streets; two of them lugged a heavy-caliber machine gun to the street leading to the local US Army base and fired about 60 rounds. American troops returned fire selectively, and ultimately eight Iraqi police vehicles screamed onto the scene. Officers arrested one fighter while the other fled.
"These guys are simply mercenaries," spat Omar Zaidan, 60, who watched the abortive firefight from a couch in front of his furniture store. "They are just a bunch of thieves and looters who just want to disturb peace over here so they can have a chance to steal from the shops." Nearby, though, another Kadhimiya resident, Mohammed Ali Hussein, 36, had a different view, as he proudly surveyed the Mahdi fighters and declared the "clans and the clerics" in control of the streets. Since Sunday, he said, Shi'ite militiamen and Sunni mujahedeen have, for the first time, fought together.
Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at email@example.com.