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Fallujah Gains Mythic Air

Siege Redefines Conflict for Iraqis in Capital

By Karl Vick and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 13, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD, April 12 -- The U.S. Marine siege of Fallujah, designed to isolate and pursue a handful of extremists in a restive town, has produced a powerful backlash in the capital. Urged on by leaflets, sermons and freshly sprayed graffiti calling for jihad, young men are leaving Baghdad to join a fight that residents say has less to do with battlefield success than with a cause infused with righteousness and sacrifice.

"The fighting now is different than a year ago. Before, the Iraqis fought for nothing. Now, fighters from all over Iraq are going to sacrifice themselves," said a Fallujah native who gave his name as Abu Idris and claimed to be in contact with guerrillas who slip in and out of the besieged city three and four times daily.


Volunteers at a mosque in Baghdad load bags of flour, grains and other staples into trucks for delivery to Fallujah, 35 miles west of the capital. (Dana Smillie For The Washington Post)

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He spoke in a mosque parking lot emptied moments earlier of more than a ton of donated foodstuffs destined for Fallujah -- heavy bags of rice, tea and flour loaded into long, yellow semitrailers by a cluster of men who, their work done, joined a spirited discussion about the need to take the fight to the enemy. They included a dentist, a prayer leader, a law student, a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi police and a man who until 10 days earlier had traveled with U.S. troops as a member of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

"Our brothers who went to Fallujah and came back say: 'Oh, God, it is heaven. Anyone who wants paradise should go to Fallujah,' " Abu Idris said.

The lopsided battle 35 miles to the west -- where 2,500 Marines have been deployed -- has had a profound impact here, redefining for many in Baghdad the nature of the campaign against U.S. troops.

Intense, sympathetic and often startlingly graphic coverage on Arab channels has deepened a vein of nationalism, stirred in part by still unconfirmed reports of high civilian casualties. Over the weekend, in the living room of a decidedly secular family, a woman wept over the images on a screen she finally leaned forward and kissed.

Headlines in Iraq's newly free press reinforce the video images: "Fallujah Wakes to a Grave Massacre" read the banner in Monday's edition of the daily Azzaman. Fresh graffiti sprayed in sweeping Arabic letters is turning up across the city. On one wall in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad, the messages were spaced 10 yards apart: "Long live Fallujah's heroes." "Down with America and long live the Mahdi Army," a Shiite militia. Then: "Long live the resistance in Fallujah." And finally, "Long live the resistance."

The popular response -- of Shiite and Sunni giving aid, shelter to refugees and even volunteers to the fight -- has pushed fears of an Iraqi civil war to the background. The fighters in Fallujah are said to include Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. A housewife in Baghdad's Salaam neighborhood told of a passionate argument with her husband, a Shiite who insisted on joining friends volunteering to fight in Fallujah.

"This is jihad," she quoted him as saying. She added: "It was the first time he ever slapped me."

Some here are already speaking with the sense of history -- that powerful, deeply symbolic myths are being created.

"What is striking is how much has changed in a week -- a week," said Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "No one can talk about the Sunni Triangle anymore. No one can seriously talk about Sunni-Shiite fragmentation or civil war. The occupation cannot talk about small bands of resistance. Now it is a popular rebellion and it has spread."

"I think it will be bigger than Karameh," he added.

For a generation, the battle of Karameh created the myths that propelled a movement. On March 21, 1968, an Israeli force of 15,000 struck at the Jordanian village of Karameh. The raid was retaliatory -- guerrillas had staged attacks from the village, just across the Jordan River. But in a rare success, Palestinian guerrillas forced an embarrassing Israeli withdrawal with the help of Jordanian artillery and armor.

For an Arab world accustomed to humiliating defeats, a draw can assume mythic proportions. Repelling the Israeli army amounted to the guerrillas' biggest victory up to that time and energized Palestinians.


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