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.
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.
"There was this young man who drove a car into an American checkpoint," he went on. "He killed lots of Americans. They found his body after three days with a little scratch on his face, though his car has totally melted in the attack."
Abu Yassir, short and heavily built, a middle-aged Iraqi with a gray beard, arrived late in the meal. He was the "emir," or commander, of the group, one of scores of such bands positioned around the city by Zarqawi's lieutenants. A more experienced fighter than the volunteers, Abu Yassir looked after the others as a father, paying for their meal, and delighting his young charges by delivering dessert: a bag of bananas.
As in most other units in Zarqawi's group, most of the commanders are Iraqis from Fallujah. They had military training in the army or security services of the government of former president Saddam Hussein. The Arab volunteers, who showed up with more eagerness than training, appear to be serving as the foot soldiers.
The hierarchy inverts the assumptions about al Qaeda in Iraq, as Zarqawi renamed his group after recently pledging fealty to Osama bin Laden, according to postings on a Web site. The group has come to represent the infusion of foreign fighters into Iraq, and in Fallujah two days before the battle such Arabs appeared to account for a substantial proportion of the fighters.
Zarqawi gives the group an international cast. But the Jordanian is famously elusive, and almost no one in Fallujah believed he was in the city this week. U.S. commanders agreed, and announced they had set their sights on his top commander, a "son of Fallujah," Omar Hadid.
Hadid represented Zarqawi's group on the mujaheddin shura, the council of holy warriors that has governed Fallujah since April, and represented the many homegrown units that organized themselves and fought independently of Zarqawi's group.
He showed up at the house the night before. The shelling was extraordinarily heavy, hour after hour of thunderous roars. A house down the street was hit and burned through the night. The fighters rushed out of their safe house and were standing on the dusty lane when a white sedan roared up, headlights off.
Hadid jumped out of the passenger seat.
"Is everyone all right?" he asked. "Take care."
Then he was gone. A kind of hum shot through the cluster of fighters, the rise in morale a visible thing. "Was that Abu Abdullah?" they asked one another, referring to the chief by his nom de guerre.
"We are not vicious bloodthirsty people, but we will kill anyone who cooperates with Americans," Abu Yassir declared the next day.
The meal was over. Most of the men had gone outside, carrying their Kalashnikovs to the bunkers and ditches that run throughout the neighborhood. One stayed inside. He was chanting from the Koran.
"All over Iraq is a battlefield and we will kill the Americans anywhere," the emir went on. "The resistance won't collapse by the death of the emir. Someone will come up and take his position.
"We don't know about ideologies," he added. "We have one goal: Liberate our countries from the Americans."