BAGHDAD, Nov. 30 -- In a cramped room that has become his refuge, with walls of grimy plaster and sloppy brickwork, a man known as Abu Mohammed sat with his children.
It was evening in Baghdad, and the Muslim call to prayer wafted over the neighborhood that takes its name from its main avenue, Palestine Street. As the invocation became audible, scratchy but melodic, Abu Mohammed paused for a moment in respectful silence. Soon after, the electricity returned to his shack, powering a lone fluorescent light that offset the gray of dusk. He sipped his sweet, dark tea and dragged again from a locally made Miami cigarette.
During fighting in Fallujah in mid-November, forces from the 1st Marine Division moved toward the bridge in the western part of the city where the bodies of two American contractors killed by militants were strung up in March.
(Anja Niedringhaus -- AP)
Then, with humility and pride, 39-year-old Abu Mohammed began his story -- a tale of death, life and prospective martyrdom. Unlike so many accounts of a conflict that has reshaped Iraq, it came not from the U.S. forces prosecuting the war, but from among the ranks of the men they fought.
A blacksmith turned insurgent, Abu Mohammed undertook an odyssey this month that carried him from the battlefields of Fallujah, roiled with religion, to a harrowing escape across the Euphrates River and a lonely exile in Baghdad, where he waits to fight another day. It began with the death of his son, Ahmed, whose short life was ended by an American bullet.
"He was only 13, but he was the equal of a thousand men," Abu Mohammed said, in words that served as an epitaph.
His hard face, framed in short, graying hair, softened. Almost imperceptibly, a glimmer passed over his limpid eyes. Sitting on a thin, tattered mat with a floral design, he leaned his short, wiry body forward, his hands clasped at his waist.
"He had more guts than me, a hundred times more," the father said. "He was still a child, but he was a hero."
Mascot Becomes a Man
In the fervent streets of Fallujah before this month's U.S. assault, residents recalled, Ahmed was a mascot of sorts among the hundreds of men who called themselves mujaheddin, guerrillas fired by faith. He was shorter than his father and more conscious of his looks: He wore his dark hair fashionably long and, residents said, preferred shirts that showed off biceps built with a regimen of weights.
He spent his hours at the Hadhra Muhammadiya mosque, a gathering place for fighters, where he became familiar with insurgent leaders such as Abdullah Janabi and Omar Hadid. Abu Mohammed said Janabi gave Ahmed a bottle of fragrance -- a tradition of the prophet Muhammad, who adored musk and believed its aroma could awaken the spirit.
Ahmed joined the war early, becoming a fighter at 12. Residents said that in his first operation in March, he hung out at the mayor's office for days, selling candy on the street and joking with U.S. soldiers. Once his presence became familiar, he managed to leave a homemade bomb at the building, which detonated. Soon after, he joined his father as a fighter.
"I consider him a man, and I treat him as a friend," one resident recalled Abu Mohammed saying of his son.
Beginning in April, Fallujah became a virtually independent fiefdom of Iraqi and foreign insurgents, a redoubt where car bombings, abductions, beheadings and attacks on the U.S. military were planned and executed. U.S. forces put pressure on the city and the insurgents, gradually increasing it until, in the first week of November, artillery attacks and air raids signaled the ground assault that would follow.
"The Americans were testing us," Abu Mohammed said. "They wanted to see what kind of power we had."
He said Ahmed insisted on serving on the front line, donning a black tracksuit that an insurgent leader had just given him. The boy's mother was angry, Abu Mohammed acknowledged, but her protests were in vain.