For weeks before Iraq's constitutional referendum this month, Iraqi guerrilla Abu Theeb traveled the countryside just north of Baghdad, stopping at as many Sunni Arab houses and villages as he could. Each time, his message to the farmers and tradesmen he met was the same: Members of the disgruntled Sunni minority should register to vote -- and vote against the constitution.
"It is a new jihad," said Abu Theeb, a nom de guerre that means "Father of the Wolf," addressing a young nephew one night before the vote. "There is a time for fighting, and a time for politics."
For Abu Theeb and many other Iraqi insurgents, this canvassing marked a fundamental shift in strategy, and one that would separate them from foreign-born fighters such as Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who leads the group al Qaeda in Iraq.
Two years of boycotting the process had only marginalized Sunnis while Iraqi's Shiite majority gained power. And Abu Theeb's entry into politics was born partly of necessity; attacks by Shiite militias, operating inside and outside the government security apparatus, were taking an increasing toll on Sunni lives.
So at 6:30 a.m. on the day of the referendum, Oct. 15, Theeb was already at the polling center in his village, which he had scouted out days in advance. Two of his fighters took up positions. Abu Theeb and the rest of the fighters, more relaxed, propped their Kalashnikov rifles against walls or placed them on tables.
"No one will attack," Abu Theeb assured a reporter. "I made sure some wrongdoers are protecting the school," he said, jokingly referring to al Qaeda loyalists. To head off any violence, he had co-opted the group by enlisting two of its supporters as his polling site guards.
This article is based on five days of travel and interviews with Abu Theeb and his associates before and after the referendum. The reporter was allowed such access on the condition that the guerrilla commander's real name and the name of his village would not be disclosed.
It was not possible to confirm directly how many Sunnis share his views on the political process. But Iraqi and U.S. analysts in Baghdad express hope that such a shift in outlook will eventually lead large numbers of radical Sunnis to abandon their weapons permanently and take part in the political process.
For men such as Abu Theeb -- who said he shaved his bushy beard, a sign of an Islamic holy fighter, to pass more easily into and out of Baghdad -- taking part in politics is a step taken only reluctantly.
"Politics for us is like filthy, dead meat," he said, referring to pork, which is eschewed by observant Muslims. "We are not allowed to eat it, but if you are crossing through a desert and your life depends on it, God says it's okay." Even if politics gets him a result he likes, he said, he will continue to wage war against the Americans, because he views them as occupiers.
To Vote, by All Means
Abu Theeb's tribe has a reputation for kidnappings and executions, and election officials declined to make the trip from Baghdad to his village to operate a polling station there. Instead, an elderly local sheik, deputized by Abu Theeb and village leaders as election monitor, settled onto a wooden bench in the classroom polling center.
Men of the village trickled in. Guerrillas soon realized that the women of this deeply conservative Tigris River hamlet were not ready to leave their homes to cast ballots. So each man who came with his identity card received a stack of ballots to take back to his family.
"Nine ballots to Haji Abu Hussein," shouted the registration official, a local villager the government had certified as an election worker. Another local, also deputized by the government, handed Haji Abu Hussein a sheath of forms.
Ignoring the voting booth set up for privacy in a corner, Haji Abu Hussein stood at the table, checked "no" boxes against the Shiite-led government's proposed constitution, folded the ballots and chucked them into the ballot box.
By midday, as the flow of voters slowed, Abu Theeb's men decided to chuck the formalities as well.
Setting a ginger-bearded man at his own table, they assigned him the task of checking "no" boxes on all the ballots they could find. As they exhausted the ballots of the village's 1,500 registered voters, they telephoned Baghdad for 20,000 more ballots. Government officials sent over about 5,000.
Two days later, Abu Theeb and two insurgent clerics were sitting on the floor of a mosque debating the next step for Sunnis, and for his group: what role to play in Iraq's Dec. 15 national elections.
"We should keep all options open, even forming a coalition with Allawi," Abu Theeb advised, referring to the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who was prime minister in the previous U.S.-formed government. "People have problems with Islamists. We should put the secularist in front."
On Tuesday, officials in Baghdad announced that the constitution had passed. Although more than 50 percent of voters in Iraq's three Sunni-majority provinces rejected the charter, that was not enough to prevent its passage. Earlier, officials had cited signs of possible voting irregularities. But despite scenes like the one in Abu Theeb's village, they certified that the vote was on the whole fair and was binding.
It was not possible to contact Abu Theeb for his views on the outcome.
From Secret Service to Holy War
The serpentine road to Abu Theeb's village is lined with palm groves and pockmarked with craters from bombs planted by the insurgents to catch passing American and Iraqi forces.
A few thousand Sunnis from one tribe live there, almost all related. Residents trace their lineage back to the prophet Muhammad. Most are Salafis, members of a fundamentalist branch of Islam that believes life and law should be guided by a literal interpretation of the Koran, the Islamic holy book.
Women are rarely seen in public. Men wear the bushy beards and ankle-length dishdasha garments of Salafis. When the call to prayer comes five times daily from the minarets of the village's many mosques, all activity stops.
Entering the hamlet by the main road requires passing 100 yards of blast walls, concrete barriers and concertina wire. U.S. troops command the checkpoint, and masked Shiite government soldiers from the south man it. Government forces have sprayed graffiti on the blast barriers, all of it with anti-Sunni subtext. "Despite the anger of those who denounce people as infidels, democracy will prevail in Iraq," reads one message.
A narrow, bumpy farm road provides the resistance fighters with safe access into the village.
In interviews, Abu Theeb said he was born in the village four decades ago, one of five brothers. His father was an illiterate farmer who always clutched his shortwave radio and loved to talk politics.
As a young man, Abu Theeb studied law, then joined the Institute of National Security, an elite academy reserved chiefly for Sunni Arabs slated for the secret services of President Saddam Hussein.
Abu Theeb had strong pride in his country, but it was broken in 1991 by the Persian Gulf War. "I hated the government," he said. "I realized that all what they were telling us about the nation and the leader was false. They had neither pride nor honor."
Abu Theeb took a four-year leave from the secret services and joined an Islamic religious school. He became enraptured, he said, with the teachings of Ibn Tamiya, a 13th-century scholar, and graduated as a cleric. When his leave was up, he went back to his job at General Security, one of Hussein's feared security agencies. Abu Theeb said he stayed until U.S. troops captured the capital in 2003.
The sight of American soldiers in the Iraqi city was an unspeakable outrage to him. "I roamed the streets with a dagger in my pocket," he said. "I was too ashamed to come back home and see my family while Baghdad was under occupation."
Abu Theeb met a group of Syrians who had come to Baghdad. Like him, they were looking for a fight with the Americans, so he took them to his home village and formed a jihad cell.
It started off with rocket and small-arms attacks on U.S. convoys, he said. Later, a fellow Salafi fighter taught him how to set a roadside bomb using simple techniques -- a TV remote control and some artillery shells.
A former Iraqi army general who visited the village laid down ground rules for the group: Roadside bombs were the most effective weapon, but they should always be planted at least 11/2 miles outside the village, so as to spare its people retaliation by the Americans.
Abu Theeb's group kept up the attacks. "Something like fire was inside us," he said. ". . . When the infidel conquers your home, it's like seeing your women raped in front of your eyes and like your religion being insulted every day."
Abu Theeb said he eventually sent the Syrians home, feeling that foreigners had no role in the resistance. He and other Salafi fighters formed the Anger Brigade, which has also kidnapped people it perceives as collaborating with the Americans and their Iraqi allies.
The group was dominated in its first months by fundamentalists such as Abu Theeb who saw armed jihad as a religious duty equal to praying and fasting. To hit a U.S. target, they believed, was a sign that God was with them. "By the help of God, this America with its might and glory would be hit by a bunch of barefoot but pure men, in dishdashas with rusty weapons," Abu Theeb said.
After nearly a year, others joined the group: local men with moderate religious views and, like Abu Theeb, prior service with Hussein's government who had grown increasingly angry over the American occupation.
Abu Theeb recounted how once he was driving to Baghdad carrying a sack filled with anti-tank rocket detonators. American soldiers stopped him at a checkpoint, ordered him out and began searching his car.
"I prayed to God. I told him, 'God, if I am doing what I am doing for your sake, then spare me. If not, let them get me,' " he recounted. "The American soldier opened the trunk where I had the sack filled with rocket detonators. He moved it away and started to search. He finished and asked me to leave. I knew then I was blessed by God."
But if God had spared Abu Theeb, he didn't spare his family. One brother and a nephew were killed early on fighting the Americans, he said. A second brother was killed several weeks ago when the roadside bomb he was planting exploded.
Rejecting the Foreigners
Eight months ago, another group of Syrian men came calling on Abu Theeb. Identifying themselves as part of al Qaeda in Iraq, they asked for his cooperation to establish the organization in that area. The group's leader "told me that he had support and money and he wanted to open a new front here. I asked him, 'And what about the village? Do you want this to become a new Fallujah?' " Abu Theeb said, referring to the insurgent stronghold all but razed and emptied by U.S. forces last year.
"When al Qaeda came here, I was the first to fight it," Abu Theeb said. "They go to the clerics and say, 'Denounce this man, and if not, your blood will be spilled.' They kill and slaughter too easily."
Abu Theeb and other Salafi clerics and Iraqi insurgent leaders north and south of Baghdad talk of a growing rift between their camp and groups that are foreign-led and supported by al Qaeda.
Initially, al Qaeda in Iraq gained support in parts of the Sunni community for its meticulous planning, its ferocious fighting and its funding. "If it wasn't for al Qaeda fighting alongside the Sunnis in Iraq, the whole battle would have had a different outcome," said Abu Hafsa, a regional guerrilla commander based north of Baghdad.
"They have experience in fighting; they did very clever stuff," Abu Theeb agreed. "They attacked all the centers of the Iraqi state and by doing so prevented the Americans from creating a puppet state that they can hand everything to. The Iraqi resistance was preoccupied with fighting the Americans only and couldn't see that strategic goal."
"Lots of the mujaheddin groups are in need of money and weapons, so they join the umbrella of the al Qaeda for support. But they differ with them in ideology," said Abu-Qutada, a guerrilla leader based south of Baghdad.
But many fundamentalist Sunnis object to al Qaeda's rigid interpretation of Islamic law. Taliban-style Islamic justice already is being enforced in the western Iraqi cities and towns under Zarqawi's control.
"Al Qaeda believes that anyone who doesn't follow the Koran literally is a kafir and should be killed," explained Abu Theeb, using a term for apostate, or a believer who abandons the faith. "This is wrong. We can't take Islamic theory from the time of the prophet and implement the same rules in the 21st century."
Abu Theeb argues that al Qaeda in Iraq's religious views stand to alienate not only Iraqi nationalists but supporters in Syria and other Persian Gulf countries.
More importantly, al Qaeda's war on Shiite civilians -- it has bombed mosques, buses and other places where Shiites gather -- is drawing the wrath of Iraqi government security forces and Shiite militias.
Scores of Sunnis have been found bound and shot after being abducted from their homes -- some rounded up just because of their tribal name, their families claim. Many Sunnis blame the killings on paramilitary units of Iraq's Interior Ministry, which includes many veterans of Shiite militias. Fearing the raids, more than 300 Sunni families have come to Abu Theeb's area, leaving their homes in Baghdad.
Still, for Abu Theeb, turning in unwanted foreign guests in his area is not an option. "We know them all -- there are no more than 15 of them here. But what can we do with them, hand them to the Americans or the Shiite government?" the guerrilla leader asked. "That's not allowed in our religion."