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As fighting flares in Baghdad, reporter readies for 'Fire Week'

| Sunday, April 18, 2004

Editor's note: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review correspondent Betsy Hiel covered last year's war in Iraq and has been in Baghdad in recent weeks, reporting on the uprising against U.S.-led forces. This is her account of living in the midst of the chaos.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Frenzied chants beyond the garden wall grow louder. "There is no god but Allah, and America is the enemy of Allah!"

Then another: "With our souls, our blood, we will sacrifice for you, oh Fallujah!"

The street where I live in Mansour, a Baghdad neighborhood, is normally quiet. But not on this day.

Inside, an Arab satellite-TV channel is broadcasting news that U.S. Marines bombed a mosque in the volatile city of Fallujah, causing many civilian casualties. (The Marines say they blasted through an outer wall of the mosque's compound, to reach gunmen firing from inside, and insist no civilians were killed.)

Nearby, the chanting protesters warn that the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, will suffer the fate of a former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Said. During the 1958 revolution, a mob dragged Said's mutilated body through the streets.

The threat to do likewise to Bremer sounds more chilling because of what occurred in Fallujah days earlier. Gunmen there killed four American contract workers; a mob dragged the mutilated bodies through the streets and hung two charred corpses from a bridge. That brought on the Marines' assault.

Neighborhood uprising

Back outside, I can't determine whether the shouting voices belong to enraged Sunnis or to militiamen of Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shia cleric leading his own uprising. Above the garden wall, I can see the missile-shaped minarets of an enormous mosque started but never finished by Saddam. If protesters or gunmen take over the mosque, the fighting will be in my back yard -- literally.

Visions of Fallujah's jubilant mobs stream through my brain, along with one thought: Where can I hide?

Sporadic gunfire and U.S. helicopters, thundering at treetop level to evade rockets, are everyday sounds here. Mysterious BOOM s rattle windows and nerves at all hours. The electricity blinks off, leaving you further in the dark.

Yet the chanting and, in the days since, the mounting mayhem and increasing threats in the streets, feel different. The anger is more raw, the risk of being caught up in it more real.

The street protest in Mansour begins moments after I talked with a security guard at my house. He revealed he is from Ramadi, another anti-American hotbed where 12 Marines had just been killed. He said he supports the insurgency, especially the foreign fighters "defending" and "sacrificing" for the people of Ramadi and Fallujah. He says I am a "good" American and warns me not to travel around too much so I don't fall into the wrong hands. "You are an American, and they will slit your throat." He smiles, drawing one hand across his neck.

On the television, Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, the two main Arab channels here, continually broadcast graphic footage of any dead women and children their cameramen can find. Their coverage has increased public sympathy for the people of Fallujah and public anger toward American troops, even among Iraqis who hate Saddam.

Plans delayed

Now, kidnapping adds a new element of danger to being here.

I had planned to leave after April 9, the first anniversary of Saddam's fall. Yet the highways in all directions have become kidnap zones. The highway to the airport on my planned travel day was officially classified as "red" -- meaning real dicey. Now it is amber, just dicey.

That, plus photos of Army tanks and gasoline tankers burning on the airport highway and a helicopter shot down by a missile near the airport, makes flying seem ... unwise.

The National Islamic Resistance, 20th Revolution Brigade, is kind enough to send out a flier explaining its plan to attack the airport, to cut U.S. military supply lines. For good measure, a second flier threatens any Iraqis allowing Americans to occupy their homes.

With foreigners being kidnapped left and right, I get tips on disguising myself in a hijab (headscarf) and abaya (a long black cloak). Some other foreign journalists are devising cover stories to recite to potential kidnappers.

Threats continue

Iraqis I know feel pressure, too, including Salam Jihad and Awadh al-Ta'ee, two of the Iraqi journalists I work with.

Gallows humor helps to lift the spirits. Salam and Awadh announce that if anyone tries to kidnap me, they'll tell him to "go find your own hostage" -- I'm already their prisoner.

Awadh wants to obtain permission from U.S. authorities to carry a pistol, since we go out night and day. He hears, however, that a permit takes six months. Someone else tells him that only Iraqi officials can carry guns.

Tell that, I think, to all the masked guys toting AK-47s on the streets.

Ava Nadir, an artist and a friend, says an Iraqi friend was kidnapped at his home.

Then Salam tells me he got another handwritten threat to kill him and his family if he continues working with Americans. It's his third such threat. He already sleeps in a different house each night.

This "final" death threat comes from the United Organization of the Mujahedeen. Addressed to "the agent Salam," it accuses him of working with the Iraqi National Congress, a political party run by Ahmad Chalabi. It says the INC works with "the polluted American occupiers."

"Do not work with the dirty Americans," the message warns, "or you and your family will be killed."

We talk it over; Salam thinks he was seen with me at a televised press conference. He blames "the Baathists and the forces of darkness" -- his phrase for Wahabis, Islamic fundamentalists.

"The Wahabis hate freedom, hate development, and they want us to go back to the desert," he says. "I want to work, I want my new life. ... I am really depressed.

"This is a painful period. There is a price for freedom."

"When they threaten him," Awadh says, "they threaten me. Salam is a peaceful man, and he doesn't hurt anyone."

An unhappy Salam makes plans to leave Baghdad, then changes his mind. He will stay and confront the men threatening him, he declares: "I will not surrender my principles."

As he does, another flier arrives, this one from the Mujahedeen Squadron. It's getting difficult to keep all the groups straight.

This note orders everyone to stay inside and all stores, schools and businesses to shut down from April 15 to 23: "Your Mujahedeen brothers in Ramadi, Khalidiya and Fallujah will transport the fire of resistance to the capital Baghdad. Assist our Mujahedeen brothers and the Mahdi Army to liberate you from the tyranny of occupation."

Wonderful -- "Fire Week."

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