Day and night, the Russian army was launching frightful airstrikes and artillery shells on his front line position south of the Terek River, but Ibragim Abdulkaderev was convinced he would live because Allah is on his side.
"When the planes fly overhead and the bombs are falling, I feel safe, like I'm covered in a cloud," said Abdulkaderev, a former firefighter from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. "I'm here for religion. We will be rewarded for that. And if I die, I will go right to paradise."
The black-bearded guerrilla is one of hundreds of Islamic militants from Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus region who have answered a call for a holy war against Russian troops. This southern Russian region, about 1,000 miles south of Moscow, won virtual independence following a two-year war. But Russian troops launched a major new offensive there last month.
The rebels make no bones about their ultimate goal of uniting the Caucasus region of southwestern Russia into an Islamic state. It is a prospect that frightens the leadership in Moscow, which over the past two weeks has moved infantry and armored columns into Chechnya to positions just north of the Terek River, and backed the advance with airstrikes and artillery fire.
Among those sharing a trench with Abdulkaderev were fighters from Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, and Dagestan, a neighboring Russian region. Each said he was called to do battle in the name of Islam.
"We are not only fighting for Chechnya. It would be just to fight for Islam in all the Caucasus. We share the same hearts," said Maksat Muratkaleyev, an electrician from Kazakhstan, who said he arrived three weeks ago outraged over Russian bombing of Chechen towns and hamlets. "When this war is over, I will go somewhere else and fight."
Nearby, Lomali Magomedov, 20, a Dagestani construction worker, said he left home six months ago against his parents' wishes. Chechnya offered him a place for religious devotion, although he said he cannot persuade his family that his choice is wise.
"They will learn that we cannot stay part of Russia. Their laws are not ours," he explained.
Some of the militants fighting on the Chechen side belong to the Wahhabi sect, a pious and warlike group with roots in Saudi Arabia and adherents in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. Many Chechens lump any pious Muslim and the Wahhabis together; opponents of the movement call them bandits.
Abdulkaderev denied that he is a Wahhabi but said he does not object to them. "All Muslims who fight for justice are good," he said.
Despairing Chechen citizens accuse Wahhabis specifically and Islamic militants in general of provoking Russia by leading an incursion into Dagestan two months ago. Islamic bands are blamed for widespread kidnapping for ransom in Chechnya.
Controversy over the militant Islamic undercurrent has further fractured Chechen society, which already was a loose mosaic of clans. South of the front, here in the small farming community of Tolstoyyurt, talk of Islamic militancy brings hisses of anger. The community has long been a center of maverick politics, and although the village is being defended by dozens of Muslim militants, residents have erected roadblocks at the town's entrance to keep them out.
"We will sell them food, but we don't want them running around our village," Said Khassuyev, a bus driver, said.
The Russian government partly justifies its punishing attack on Chechnya as a response to terrorism, specifically to the spate of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities last month that killed nearly 300 people.
Abdulkaderev, 24, was sitting in a shallow trench less than two miles from the Terek River. An artillery round kicked up dust along the road from the river. "Inshallah," he said. "God willing, the Russians will come and we will be ready."
Trenches, some only two feet deep, are scattered across the barren heights no more than 700 yards south of the winding river. Across the river, Russian infantry and armored personnel carriers were visible through binoculars.
The Chechens say they will make a stand on the ridge on this side of the river. If the Russians break through--and it is not certain they will try--they will command heights above Grozny, 20 miles to the southwest.
"The Russians think we will retreat to the mountains when they cross, but they are wrong," a commander named Hamzat said. "There will be lots of dead Russians if they try to come."
Abdulkaderev retired to a rear trench a mile south after finishing a four-hour shift on the front line. He lounged with five other fighters, their conversation punctuated about every five minutes by the explosion of artillery shells landing near the main road. In the distance, the thud of Grad multiple-launched rockets reverberated from the hillsides.
Abdulkaderev is a sapper. His father was a Communist who opposed his religious convictions. "My father is like a computer with only one program. I can't persuade him we must live under Allah's law," he said. "Man-made law is unjust. If my commander were to do something against Islam, I would throw down my rifle."
Abdulkaderev, who married three days ago, said his wife shares his convictions and would gladly join him.
Muratkaleyev, the fighter from Kazakhstan, said he has studied Arabic and the Koran and joined the fighting through friends in Chechnya. Many Chechens were exiled to Kazakhstan during the rule of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
"Sometimes I ask myself why I am here. But I have truly learned to pray in this trench," he said.
Another boom of artillery broke the conversation. Suddenly, Haider Pretev, an Armenian and Christian, appeared from the road. He said he had arrived a few days ago to fight, angered by the Russians' bombing, and was looking for a unit to join. His wife, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, is Chechen. "It is as if they are bombing my family," he said.
Pretev, an unemployed taxi driver in Armenia, has no military training. Visitors asked him how, as a Christian, he would be able to fight alongside men whose ultimate goal is a state ruled by Islamic law. "I will get to that later. I will fit in somehow. For now, I just want to fight the Russians," he said.
The Islamic guerrillas began to ask about his background. "If his heart is just, we will be able to use him," Abdulkaderev said.
CAPTION: Russian officers study a map and discuss targets before the next round of artillery shelling in the Naurski region of northwestern Chechnya.