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Sparrowhawk
09-21-03, 12:41 PM
Otherwise they would be coming here to play their game of death. <br />
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It's the price of the freedom we are enjoying in America today that American warriors are paying for in Iraq. <br />
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&lt;hr&gt; <br />
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Bloody...

Sparrowhawk
09-21-03, 12:41 PM
He sat down to a dinner of rice, tomatoes and eggplant. When the last call to prayer pierced the sweltering summer night, he got up from the table, said an abrupt goodbye and left through a yard of lotus trees. "He didn't return," said Salah.

The muezzin's sonorous call, at 9:30 p.m., was the signal for the others.

Raed Kirtani had taken a bath and put on cologne, then laughed with his mother before leaving. Shaabani simply bid his family farewell. Some of the men donned their dark tracksuits and tennis shoes before they left. Others wore them under their dishdashas, a traditional gown. Fahdawi, his family said, had put his clothes in a bag and taken them to the mosque a day earlier.

They staged their attack near an ammunition depot where U.S. forces are still stationed, between Habanniya Lake and a canal that snakes along brown, rocky bluffs interspersed with scraggly eucalyptus trees and electric towers.

At about 1:30 a.m., Fahdawi and the others lay in wait as troops left the depot. U.S. officials at the time said the men might have been expecting Humvees. Instead, they met Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s, they opened fire, but were outgunned. Fahdawi and four others were killed. A sixth fighter was captured. There were no U.S. casualties.

In central Khaldiya, a mile or so away, residents woke up and clambered onto their roofs to watch a battle that some said lasted 90 minutes, others three hours. But even before the fighting ended, relatives and friends said they knew what the outcome would be.

"I had a feeling," said Khaled Kirtani, Raed's brother.

As the sun rose, relatives went to the moonscape that was the battlefield. U.S. soldiers had taken the bodies to the hospital, a nearby base and finally Khaldiya. Left behind were 100-yard trails of blood, marking where relatives believed the bodies had been dragged away, along with spent rounds, soiled shoes and shreds of clothing. Muthanna, Shaabani's 19-year-old brother, found the bloodied, bullet-holed head scarves of Shaabani, Fahdawi and Huzeimawi. Nearby were the baseball hats, one emblazoned with the Nike logo, that had been worn by the Kirtani cousins.

"We delivered each one to their families," Muthanna said.

Sheathed in body bags and transported for hours in Humvees under a scorching sun, the bodies arrived at the police station in the afternoon. Khaled Kirtani said his brother's face was so mangled he could recognize him only by his hair. The belly of his cousin, he said, was ripped open. He thought Shaabani's body had been run over by a tank. Fahdawi's relatives said half his face was blown away.

Within hours, the relatives recalled, the men crossed the threshold from death to martyrdom in the eyes of the town.

Khaled said his brother's body seemed to retain a lifelike quality, as befitting a sacred death. "There was no odor," he recalled, surprised even now. "They had gone to meet God."

In the funerals held the same day, hundreds of relatives and neighbors paid their respects.

Shaabani's father, Ahmed, 45, displayed a yellow and black notebook with the names of 40 relatives and 318 friends. Carefully recorded in handwritten script, it noted their names and the sums they gave -- from $1 to $14 -- to mark his death.

In Fahdawi's house, the family heeded his wishes and refused to cry as they received mourners who numbered -- in Salah's words -- "200, 300, perhaps 1,000." Sheik Abed, his former teacher, told the family not to wash the body, but, as is customary for martyrs, to bury it as was. He bestowed on Fahdawi an honorific reserved for fathers, a symbol of the marriage that awaited him in heaven.

As they placed his body in a white shroud, then inside a wood coffin, the sheik declined to utter the funeral prayers.

"A martyr doesn't need the prayers," Salah recalled the sheik saying. "He's guaranteed to be in heaven. He's already there."

A LOVE FOR DEATH
Sheik Abed, a pacific man with a gray and black beard, was long the most influential cleric in Khaldiya. In an interview, he acknowledged knowing Fahdawi and said they had sometimes studied together, but he declined to call him a martyr. That's God's judgment, the sheik said. While he said he understood their reasons for fighting -- as Muslims, they should not be ruled by infidels -- he described the men as reckless and impetuous. The occupation is too young, he said, and it is too early to take up arms.

"It's not time for jihad," he said.

But relatives of the men said Sheik Abed is no longer an unquestioned voice in Khaldiya. With Hussein's fall, they said, the city has opened to influences that were once underground, currents that have swept the Arab world for a generation.

For Fahdawi and the others, Aghassi, the preacher also known as Abu Qaqaa, was their cleric of choice. Based in Syria, the tall, lanky Aghassi refrains from criticizing his own government but delivers a stern message of jihad that views the United States and Israel as allies in a campaign against the Muslim world. As it does for other Islamic preachers, the Palestinian cause sits at the heart of Aghassi's rhetoric, which is framed as a struggle between religions. In a booming voice, he punctuates his speeches with talk of traitors and mercenaries.

His cassettes and videos are available in religious bookstores in Jordan, but were circulated only by hand in Iraq before the occupation. Now they are freely sold in neighboring Fallujah for less than $1 each. Relatives said the young men around Fahdawi rented them for 15 cents, sometimes watching them together and trading them among themselves.

A gifted orator, Aghassi favors a style that builds to a crescendo, then softens, only to build again.

"We want manhood and heroism," he declared in one taped sermon, delivered to a crowd that broke into tears. "We want people to love death and yearn for heaven. We want the words 'no god but God' to shake the world."

Muslims, he said, should look to martyrdom "as a thirsty man looks to water."

In another video, he delivers his sermon as images are shown of planes flying into the World Trade Center, followed by pictures of the White House, Congress and Kremlin and sounds of loud explosions. In the background, the cleric stands clad in camouflage, with an M-16 rifle in one hand, a pistol in the other.

"America has tyrannized the Muslim nation," Aghassi said in a sermon titled "The Cadence of Justice in the Time of Defeat" and recorded last year. "Pour on it your anger and change its strength to weakness, its wealth to poverty, its unity into disunity."

On a cassette taped after Baghdad's fall, he railed against Arab leaders allied with the United States "who know nothing but palaces" and drew on Islamic history to make his points. While forgiving of Hussein and Syria's president, he suggested the conflict would unfold in a clearly religious context -- of infidels against believers, of Muslims against others.

"Show these mercenaries a black day," he intoned. "Like a dark night, drown them in the Euphrates and the Tigris."

LITTLE DOUBT ON MOTIVES
Capt. Michael Calvert, a military spokesman in neighboring Ramadi, said U.S. troops along the Euphrates have yet to determine the motives for the guerrilla attacks that seem to be on the rise.

"If you can build us a profile," he said, "we'll hire you."

But Khaled Kirtani, whose brother was buried with his cousin in a cemetery overlooking the green-domed Sheik Masoud shrine, has little doubt about the men's motives. Their tombstones called them "martyred heroes." Ribbons colored the green of Islam are tied at the base.

Kirtani, like other relatives whose conversations are peppered with the phrases of Aghassi, said they died for God, not Hussein. "Saddam Hussein put a tent over the Iraqi people," said Kirtani, 27. "He cheated the Iraqi people."

Slender and stern like his brother, Kirtani listed the former Iraqi leader's sins. He started the Iran-Iraq war, in which Muslim killed Muslim. He invaded Kuwait. He gave the Americans a pretext for occupying Iraq. And his army, he said, "dissolved in minutes."

"Saddam Hussein is behind all our problems," he said, wearing a black shirt inherited from his brother. "My expectation is that Saddam Hussein is in the United States on an island. They'll build a monument for him because he made their mission easy."

Some residents of this Sunni Muslim town express nostalgia for the days when their region was favored at the expense of the Kurdish north and the Shiite-dominated south. To many of them, Hussein stands as the embodiment of a recognized past as opposed to an uncertain future. But Kirtani angrily dismissed those sentiments, voiced most often by his parents' generation.

"The young people are waking up. I saw it with my brother and cousin," he said. "They're not Baathists, they're not party members. They did it for God. When they saw the Americans come, raid the houses, steal from the people, they didn't accept it."

He invoked the Koran. He quoted the prophet Muhammad's sayings. And he talked with the fervor of the converted.

"The American people should realize they're going to start receiving coffins," Kirtani said. "We're not their slaves." He stopped to catch his breath, shaking his head as if uttering a self-evident truth. "We accept death as easily as we drink water."




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