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A Fighter From Afar

Seeking Salvation In City of Insurgents

By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page A30

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- He first tried to get to Iraq in April 2003, when U.S. troops established control over the country and jihad became a place on a map.

"I wanted to come and fight for Islam," said Abu Thar, who started the journey from the capital city of his native country, Yemen, across the Arabian Peninsula. "I met a Jordanian merchant who provided me with tickets to Syria and a hundred dollars.

Abu Thar rested Sunday. He didn't plan to return to Yemen, where his wife and six children live. "The only place I am going from here," he said, "is heaven." (Ghaith Abdul-ahad -- Getty Images)

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"He even drove me to the airport himself."

Abu Thar arrived at the airport in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, with a group of other Yemeni students, a flock of would-be jihadis forming a neat line at the immigration counter. Abu Thar was wearing a traditional Arab robe and a small turban.

"And when the police asked me why I was going to Damascus, I said, 'To work.' They asked me what kind of work. I said, 'To work for the salvation of my soul.' And they sent me back."

A thin young man with an ascetic manner and a gentle voice, Abu Thar fingered the fabric of his cheap cotton trousers. By his reckoning, the Western clothes were what finally got him started on the smugglers' road to Iraq, in time for the showdown in Fallujah.

"This time," he said, "I learned the lesson and bought these."

If foreign fighters are the primary stated reason that 10,000 U.S. troops this week commenced the largest combat operation since the fall of Baghdad, the journey of Abu Thar sheds rare light on their presence in Fallujah. Arab fighters poured in when Marines first laid siege to the city in April. At the time, many Fallujans welcomed the foreign fighters as reinforcements against an occupation force that many felt was punishing an entire city for the actions of the few who had mutilated the bodies of American contractors days before.

But in the six months that followed, by many accounts, a coolness developed between hosts and guests. The Arabs were blamed for beheadings, car bombs that killed civilians and for imposing their strict notions of faith on a local population with traditions of its own.

In the end, the stubborn presence of foreign fighters scotched efforts to return control of Fallujah to Iraq's interim government. By Monday night, when U.S. tanks rolled into a city largely emptied of civilians, American commanders estimated that Arabs from countries other than Iraq accounted for at least 20 percent of the 3,000 or so fighters who remained.

This is the story of one.

It was related to a reporter Saturday, two days before the start of fighting, in a soft voice sometimes drowned out by the percussion of artillery shells. He stood beside a makeshift bunker, in an Adidas jacket and athletic shoes. The specifics of Abu Thar's story could not be immediately confirmed. But its broad outline -- of a kind of underground railroad channeling young Arab fighters into Iraq -- is consistent with other accounts, and the declarations of U.S. and Iraqi officials.

The manner of the individual relating them, moreover, was sincere in the extreme. Abu Thar, a nom de guerre, told the recent story of his life with the evident earnestness that moved his fellow fighters in Fallujah to elect him to lead the group in prayers, an honor normally reserved for the commander.

He said that the day after he was turned away at the airport, he returned to his job driving a minibus taxi in Yemen's capital. His passion was the study of Islamic law, or sharia. But after Sept. 11, 2001, Yemen's government cracked down on foreign support to the religious university where he had studied for six years, and he no longer received the $50 monthly stipend on which he lived. So he drove a cab.

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