On a clear day before the ground assault, guerrillas scurried around the narrow streets of the Shuhada neighborhood. A barrage of artillery and air raids lasted from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., Abu Mohammed said. There was a break, then fighting resumed at 4 p.m. Abu Mohammed sent his son to fetch ammunition from among the rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells, rockets and AK-47 assault rifles that he kept in a hole next to their one-room house.
The boy ran, crouching, about 600 yards down a street lined with ocher-colored buildings. As he did, he was struck about 6:10 p.m. by a bullet whose source his father did not see. It pierced the back of Ahmed's neck and tore through his chest. The boy was buried three hours later, at a cemetery next to the Farouk mosque, with four others killed that day.
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)
The mystique of martyrdom prevented Abu Mohammed from mourning the death of his son. Ahmed died, as he put it, "in the path of God." But three weeks on, he allowed himself a moment of reflection: "He was one of my ribs," he said.
The boy's mother has yet to learn of her son's death. She thinks he is staying with relatives, Abu Mohammed said.
"I cannot tell her now," he said plaintively.
He thrust his hands forward. "She's a mother. What do you think her reaction will be?"
'Like Celebrating a Feast'
The battle for Fallujah began on Nov. 8 and, under cover of darkness, Abu Mohammed began fighting.
Residents said he already had a reputation as a fighter. Before the war he was a blacksmith and a day laborer, making barely enough money to support two wives and nine children, all of whom slept in one room, with a kitchen adjoining it. Months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, he joined the ranks of insurgents. He said he worked as a scout, then ran weapons, then became a renowned sniper.
A man not given to boasting, he said he had carried out 17 or 18 "operations" outside Fallujah, in the arid expanse of western Iraq. Since he began fighting, he said, 30 men he knew have died. After an operation this fall, when he fired rockets at a U.S. base in Habbaniya after sneaking past fortifications, residents said Janabi, the insurgent leader, nicknamed him wawi, or jackal.
"When I shoot a target with a rocket-propelled grenade, it's like celebrating a feast," he said.
While atrocities unleashed by the insurgents -- beheadings and bombings that have killed scores of civilians -- have at least anecdotally seemed to unleash popular revulsion, there remains a constituency in Iraq that celebrates the guerrilla war. Myths have grown up around it, all infused with religious imagery and notions of divine intervention. Residents trade stories: that the knights of the prophet Muhammad were seen riding through Fallujah's streets on horseback with their swords drawn; that birds guided by God cast stones at Apache helicopters; that a scented breeze descends on the fighters as they battle U.S. troops.
Abu Mohammed had his tale.
At a checkpoint this summer, he was stopped by U.S. and Iraqi troops with a rocket-propelled grenade and three hand grenades in his trunk. He said he beseeched God: "I am fighting for you." The troops opened the trunk, he said, and found nothing.
The fighting in Fallujah, though, was nothing like Abu Mohammed had seen. He recalled the battle in April, when U.S. troops first tried to take the city but brokered a truce that eventually put it in insurgents' hands. This month's battle, he said, was far more ferocious.