FALLUJAH, Iraq -- In a small safe house in Fallujah, one of many in a town deserted by its residents, a dozen fighters sat on the floor of a half-lit room.
Behind them and against the wall were metal pipes -- makeshift rocket launchers. Mortar and artillery shells, ammunition belts and explosives lay scattered on the floor.
U.S. Marines of the 1st Division take up positions on the outskirts of Fallujah as a full-scale attack against the insurgent-held city begins. American forces entered the city, west of Baghdad, late Monday.
(Anja Niedringhaus -- AP)
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Legs crossed and arms stretched, the fighters scooped rice and beans with their fingers from a communal plate, ending a long day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan as explosions rocked the city.
This was the scene two days before the massive assault on the city that began Monday, and the men were its target, a dozen of them in sneakers, tracksuits and beards, preaching jihad and the virtues of martyrdom. They were volunteers in the army of Monotheism and Jihad, the organization headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, an elusive Jordanian who Iraqi and U.S. officials have said turned Fallujah into a terrorist refuge.
Dressed alike, the men were as different as their accents, a new generation of the jihad diaspora, arriving in Fallujah from all over the Arab world: five Saudis, three Tunisians, a Yemeni. Only three were Iraqis.
"I had a vision yesterday that tomorrow I would finally be granted the martyrdom," said the latest arrival, a thin man in his early twenties. He had come from his home in Saudi Arabia just a week ago.
"This is not fair," replied the Yemeni, making a joke. "I have been here for months now."
"Don't worry, Abu Hafsa," said one of the Tunisians, heavyset and talkative. "It is either victory or martyrdom, and both are great honors."
Outside, artillery shells rocked the low-slung buildings of a city that has been a symbol of violence to one part of the world and a beacon of resistance to another. The men were gathered in a simple, unfurnished house in the neighborhood of Jolan. Located in the northwest of Fallujah, it is one of the districts that U.S. armor entered two days later, when the battle finally began.
The chunky Tunisian, Abu Usama, started telling a story.
"A friend was injured in an attack," he said. "They took him to the hospital. When he opened his eyes he saw a beautiful woman. He cheered and thanked God that he had finally become a martyr and was granted one of the divine virgins.
"But then he realized that he was still alive and started crying."
That was how they talked of death, not fearfully but in happy anticipation. Death, the young men said, is nothing but the award they awaited. Waiting for the onslaught of American armor, they exchanged Koranic verses and sayings of the prophet Muhammad, divine poetry about the beauty of martyrdom.
"Even if your body was totally torn out, all that you will feel is a slight itch," said one Iraqi fighter. He was young enough that his weight looked like baby fat. He was dressed entirely in black.