With about 80 others, Abu Mohammed's family left home at 11 p.m. The walk to the river usually takes 15 minutes, he said; with the thunder of artillery barrages, it took three hours. They walked past corpses in the street, some mauled by dogs, to an area shrouded by pomegranate and orange trees and date palms that ran to the edge of the river's sandy bank.
"We took nothing, not even our clothes," he said.
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)
Four boats awaited them, one with a motor. Fighters ordered women and children to split up, fearful that one blast might kill an entire family. The command ignited chaos, he recalled, as women began yelling for their children. Some of them groped in the dark to make sure they were safe.
"You can imagine when the shell lands in the water. It's like the river is burning," Abu Mohammed said. "I can't describe the fear. They were so scared. Only God kept the explosions away from us."
The winter is moderate in Iraq, but the water was chilly and the current was strong. The boats crossed gingerly to the far bank, taking his 15-year-old son, his 10-year-old daughter, a 7-year-old son and so on.
The hours passed. Worried that the sun would soon rise, Abu Mohammed said, he took his youngest son, 3-year-old Abdel-Qadir, and began swimming. Halfway across, one of the boats passed, and he put the boy inside and returned to the bank.
At 4 a.m., the shelling became so severe that the boats did not cross again, forcing those left behind to fend for themselves. One of his wives could not swim, so Abu Mohammed waded into the water with her. She struggled, almost choking him. Time again slowed; a swim he said usually took 10 minutes ended up lasting 45.
Dawn had broken as he stood on the other bank, a half-mile downriver. It was too dangerous to return to Fallujah in daylight.
"I wanted to go back, but the sun had already risen," Abu Mohammed said, his voice tinged with regret. "I was trying to find an eye of a needle to get back to Fallujah, but I couldn't find it."
'There Will Be Jihad'
More than two weeks later, Abu Mohammed sat in a home that friends had found for him in Baghdad.
A television set and satellite dish perched on a rickety wooden stand, donated by his sister. Mattresses were tossed over straw mats and a brown carpet given to the family by friends. A bouquet of pink and yellow plastic flowers decorated one wall. The others were bare but for a Koran wrapped in a blue bag that hung from a nail, higher than anything else in the room.
The disparate forces that make up the insurgency in Iraq are, in many ways, united by what they lack: a political program. In its stead, among many Iraqi guerrillas at least, is a visceral nationalism more and more reflected through the lens of religion, a force that has come to mold the insurgency. Islam provides the vocabulary, the imagery and the faith in death itself as a cause. There is little ideology beyond God, no prescription for a future government.
Before the war, Abu Mohammed called himself a sympathizer of Hussein. No longer.
In a conversation that lasted hours, he rejected the idea of muqawima, the Arabic word for resistance. The word is too secular. It is a jihad, he said, and the men who fight are mujaheddin, obligated by religion to fight non-Muslim occupiers.
"Until the day of judgment, there will be jihad," Abu Mohammed said, his words slow. "If something happened in Lebanon, I would find a bridge to cross and go there to fight." In a calm voice, he described his obligation as a matter of fact, a self-evident truth, and he quoted the Koran to illustrate his point: "And slay them wherever you catch them."
He clutched a pillow in his lap as he sat cross-legged. A tattered white curtain hung over the window, its pane broken.
"Jihad is not only against the Americans, it's also waged against the people who support them," he said. "They say the government is Iraqi, but it's really American. It's an Iraqi on the throne, but the throne itself is American."
Even among those sympathetic to the insurgency, some have denounced the beheadings carried out by the guerrillas. Abu Mohammed made exceptions: Foreign contractors, aid workers and journalists should not be killed. But no punishment, he said, was severe enough for traitors. He quoted Janabi, the insurgent leader: Killing a spy is the equivalent of killing 100 Americans.
"What is the penalty of being a spy?" he asked. "I swear by the holy Koran that no one is beheaded unless he confesses that he did this or that." He quoted another verse, looking again at the hanging Koran: "Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of God and your enemies."
His 3-year-old, Abdel-Qadir, played next to him, shining a flashlight in his father's eyes. Abu Mohammed ignored him, seemingly taken by his own words. He insisted he would return to Fallujah soon. Not to avenge his son, he said, but to prosecute the fight.
"I wish I could leave today," he said, shaking his head. "I will kiss your hand if you can show me the way."