Americans sow seeds of hatred

Patrick Graham in Falluja meets angry Iraqi tribes who say they, not Saddam's forces, are shooting down US helicopters

Sunday November 9, 2003
The Observer


Sarab rolls up her sleeve and looks at the thick scar across her upper arm. The eight-year-old says she was playing in the bathroom of her house when the shots were fired but cannot remember anything else.

'It is their routine,' said her grandfather, Turk Jassim. 'After the Americans are attacked, they shoot everywhere. This is inhuman - a stupid act by a country always talking about human rights.'

Last September, US forces shot dead Sarab's two-year old sister, Dunya, and wounded two other girls in her family, 13-year-old Menal and 16-year old Bassad. The family belongs to the Albueisi tribe who farm the rich land along the Euphrates river south of Falluja. The Albueisi fought against the British and even Saddam Hussein found them difficult to control. Since April, at least 10 members of the tribe have been killed by US forces, including five policemen.

While the US authorities maintain that resistance attacks are carried out by former Baathists and supporters of Saddam, they continue to ignore the tribal nature of the insurgency which has grown steadily over recent months. Deeply conservative clans like the 50,000-strong Albueisi have codes of honour which they complain the American army ignores at checkpoints and during raids on houses.

They also believe that the Koran demands jihad against foreign invaders. Asked how many American lives should be taken if one of their own is killed, the answer is: 'As many as possible.'

Last week an American Chinook helicopter was shot down by a heat-seeking missile a few kilometres from Sarab's house, killing 16 soldiers. It could have been worse, the neighbours say. Resistance fighters were ready to fire another missile at a second Chinook when they were stopped by worried locals.

After the crash, others in the area came out with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs, but they, too, were dissuaded for fear of retaliation. And with good reason. After Friday's downing of a Black Hawk helicopter near Tikrit,US troops dropped two 500lb bombs and fired tank rounds at the area of the crash in a show of force.

According to Albueisi resistance supporters, the attack on the Chinook was carried out by members of the tribe, as was a second attack later in the week on a military train. One of the freight containers from the train lies behind Sarab's house, its lettering partially effaced by handfuls of mud.

'If the Americans came as normal citizens, we'd welcome them,' said Khalid, an Albueisi with ties to the resistance. 'When they came for liberation, I sent them food. Now I just want to kill them. If I didn't have children, I'd join tomorrow.'

As a teenager, Khalid won local fame for revenging his brother's death. A notoriously good shot, he says he is now thinking of dusting off his Kalashnikov.

'What are we supposed to say? "Oh, the poor American soldiers died" when they kill people here every day? I expected more than just a Chinook to be shot down.'

Like everybody in the area, he believes far more soldiers died in the crash than the authorities admit. According to Khalid, the tactics and aims of the resistance in the Falluja area are different from those in Baghdad. In the countryside, foreign fighters and Saddam's supporters play a far smaller role than tribal relationships and traditional codes.

'The Albueisi have hot blood and will do anything without caring about the results. If something happens to one of them, they will get together and take revenge. More helicopters will go down, definitely.'

According to Khalid, last month a Russian made Sam-7 Strela anti-aircraft missile like the one used against the Chinook could be purchased for $325, mostly from tribes in southern Iraq who collected thousands following the fall of Saddam. He had heard that a new, more compact missile was on the market but did not know the name or the price.

The US troops pulled out of the Chinook crash site at the end of last week, leaving behind piles of Tootsie Roll wrappers and plastic containers for Menu 19, Beef With Mushroom. Near by, women in bright dresses and scarves wrapped round their faces weeded potato and wheat fields. Yassim Hachim smiled broadly as he wheeled by on his bike past bulldozed farmland where US troops had scooped up even the soil next to an irrigation ditch. 'It was like Eid, because it was the best celebration,' he said, referring to the festival that ends this month's fasting of Ramadan.

'I saw the missile come from the west and hit the helicopter. After the crash, people got their weapons to shoot the US soldiers, but they were stopped. Everybody here hates the US.'

Since April, at least 40 civilians and police have been killed in and around Falluja, as well as 22 US soldiers, two of them yesterday in a bomb attack west of the city. It is a cycle that does not look like it will end soon.

'They do not understand psychology,' said Dr Adnan Chechan, a surgeon at Falluja's main hospital. 'When you are violent, you get a violent reaction.'

Last week, he pointed out, six people were killed 500 yards from the hospital as they drove past a US convoy shortly after a roadside bomb exploded. Television footage from inside one of the mini-vans carrying employees of the Oil Ministry was too gruesome to be broadcast.

Adnan was sitting under posters that read: 'Free Dr Omar Abdul Sattar.' He said that the former head of the provincial healthcare system had been arrested for operating on members of the resistance six weeks ago and was still in jail.

People in Falluja have been particularly critical of the 82nd Airborne - which has been given responsibility for occupying the area and ordered to crack down on insurgents.

'Previously, I had a good view of American people,' said Adnan. 'But we have changed our mind after seeing the aggression - the soldiers in Falluja and Khaldiya are very aggressive.

'The people here do not do these attacks for no reason. If someone in their clan has been killed, they will take revenge.'

In the area around Falluja, the US army appears to be winning hearts and minds - for their enemy.

'The American army is our best friend,' a resistance fighter told us. 'We should be giving them medals.'