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North of the western Iraqi town of Ramadi lies the “peninsula” a bend in the Euphrates, dotted with vegetable fields, orchards and occasional low earthen mounds on which stand memorials to the “martyrs” killed in the struggle against the US marines based across the river.
This is the territory of the “Omariyun,” an insurgent network drawn from four of the main tribes in the peninsula, named after a 7th century Muslim ruler venerated by the Sunni.
The peninsula clans' unofficial leader and consequently the Omariyun's informal consultant is a former army colonel named Watban Jassam, a tall officer in his 50s, well groomed and well spoken, who for 15 years was a prisoner of war held by the Iranians and now lives on a farm with his five sons.
The Omariyun are very much a local movement, but similar networks are common across Sunni Arab Iraq. This makes Colonel Jassam, a respected community leader who wields influence over local insurgents but does not share the radical Islamist ideology of extremists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, exactly the kind of man that the Americans want to convince to give up armed struggle.
However, as long as US forces remain in Iraq, and as long as pro-Iranian Shia parties wield power in Baghdad, he does not seem ready to be convinced.
Colonel Jassam's wartime suffering and his piety (he memorised the Koran while in prison) as well as his educated demeanour give him a moral authority with the Omariyun, even if he does not engage directly in the planning or conduct of operations although he once ambushed some US soldiers after his brother was killed in a raid.
He has no objection to his name appearing in print. He says he is known to the Americans and, in fact, claims that they once tried to hire him as an adviser, in between raids on his house.
In this part of the country, fixing guilt for supporting the insurgents would be difficult. Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone seems to back the mujahideen, or holy warriors.
At one point during a meeting with Colonel Jassam, shooting echoes in the background. The next morning, after one of the colonel's sons talks to the neighbours, the family discovers that it was not an attack authorised by the Omariyun leadership, but rather a freelance attack by a group of youths.
“They were out to make their reputation so they will be called upon to carry out future operations,” Colonel Jassam explains.
The colonel's advice to the insurgents is twofold: hints on how to strike while dodging the marines' devastating firepower, and thoughts on what their political goals should be. He suggests that the insurgents fire mortars or rockets from multiple locations at once, and then flee immediately, so as not to give the Americans' counter-battery radar the chance to locate them. He tells the peninsula's insurgents to fight smartly not like the Salafi Islamists, he says, “who spend too long in one place, and who don't think through their resistance”.
The colonel's political vision, meanwhile, is shaped by his 15 years in Iranian detention, where he was held by the Badr militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq an Iraqi party that fought alongside Tehran in the 1980 to 1988 Iran/Iraq war, and which is now the most important power in his own country's Shia-dominated government.
He was released in 1997, eight years after the war's end. The Badr militiamen, he says, tortured him harshly - a common charge heard from former POWs. In Colonel Jassam's case, the militia forced him to eat 2kg of salt a day, leaving him with kidney problems that persist.
He also says the Badr forced the prisoners to dirty themselves when they went to the bathroom, rendering them ritually impure and therefore unable to pray. He stresses he has nothing against the Shia per se. “We like [anti-American Shia leader] Muqtada al-Sadr. I don't have any problem with Shia, just with the Supreme Council and with Badr.” To win the war against the US military and Badr, Colonel Jassam advises the Omariyun to follow two short-term goals to cement mujahideen control over the Ramadi area, and to stage operations that will increase pressure on US opinion to withdraw troops.
In Ramadi, the insurgents are setting up a nascent mini-civil administration in its outskirts, distributing petrol and water to civilians. They finance themselves through the Transport Ministry's local office in charge of vehicle registration, which they essentially control by threats against its administrators.
For a few thousand dollars they issue licences to second-hand vehicles more than five years old, which are banned from import under an anti-congestion decree passed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi. With the permits, such cars can be sold elsewhere in the country. To achieve their second goal, turning Americans against the war, the mujahideen need to shape their operations “to support anti-war sentiment in the west”, he says.
To gauge US public opinion, he has become an avid watcher of satellite news channels, and never misses the White House press briefings. When he sees footage of another insurgent groups' attack on a bus station, he exclaims: “They were innocents no one should kill them.” He also denounces the Americans for using Mr Zarqawi's name to tarnish the mujahideen as a whole.
After the mujahideen have driven out the Americans, they will move on to their next goal - destroying Badr as a force that could ever hold power in Iraq. The otherwise good-natured Colonel Jassam displays a rare flash of hatred when he describes his former tormentors.
“The Badr said that the Sunnis were infidels …but who pledges allegiance now to the [American] infidels?” he asks. “The Badr forces have abandoned Islam.”
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