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How Wahhabis fan Iraq insurgency

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 17, 2003


To his followers, Sheikh Tahma Aboud Khalif is a loving father of four; a poor and harmless Islamic ideologue whose only fault is his "temper."

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But for the American soldiers who caught the sheikh red-handed attempting to ambush their convoy, early one June morning south of Baghdad, the sheikh is a Wahhabi terrorist - and deserves to be sent to Guantánamo Bay.

"We very literally dodged a bullet that day," says a US military intelligence officer, who asked not to be named. "That group has a lot of influence and conducts a lot of attacks, but they are not the only ones. When this is over, you will see that this was a hotbed."

Sheikh Tahma's case offers a rare window, say US officers and local clerics, into the way some adherents of the Wahhabi faith - a puritanical branch of Sunni Islam that calls for the expulsion of foreign infidels - figure in anti-US violence in Iraq.

Repressed during the era of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Wahhabis are finding a new voice among people distraught by the insecurity that has accompanied the US-led occupation, and the postwar failure to improve Iraqi lives. But the Sheikh's case is also an example of the way US forces are working with local clerics to defuse anger.

The result, in the case of Tahma, was a rare step beyond preaching anti-US rhetoric - common enough in both Iraq's Sunni and Shiite mosques - into the realm of taking action.

The sheikh and three accomplices, on the morning of June 14, hid a homemade roadside bomb made of two 122mm artillery shells in a bit of sacking, and then lay in wait for a US convoy to pass.

The bomb failed to go off, and US troops aboard the convoy spotted the four beside the wall of the building, holding antitank weapons and assault rifles. They gave chase, and three of the attackers disappeared into tall elephant grass.

But the sheikh was too slow. Cornered by US forces, he raised his weapon directly at them, and was tackled. The photograph taken during interrogation shows an intense, scuffed up middle-aged man with a thin moustache, a beard, and a head bandage.

US troops who dealt with Tahma during the failed attack and after, say they were shocked by the sheikh's anger that he was such a poor bombmaker.

"He called it a 'failed experiment,' I'll never forget that," says Lt. Col. David Haight, whose unit thwarted the attack. "I've never struck an Iraqi, but that really got to me."

This sheikh was no ordinary catch, however. He told his captors that he had some information, and led them to his own small, blue-domed, Salah al-Adin Mosque, in the palm-thick fertile plains beside the Tigris river.

A crowd gathered as the Americans and Iraqis working with them conducted a search. Inside the mosque, they found 1,500 assault rifle bullets.

In the compound and a nearby caretaker's compound, they found some 1,500 more rounds of ammunition, smoke and illumination flares, German detonation devices used for Claymore mines, and two switch timer devices in a plastic bag.

The information gleaned from the sheikh illustrated for these US units that violent resistance was not limited to pro-Saddam loyalists - but included Sunni religious elements also.

"He led us down the Wahhabi path," says Colonel Haight. "He got our foot in the door, into anti-Coalition attacks" Still, a spike in attacks the past month and a half around the area of this "cell" has yielded 12 bombs known here as "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, and grenade attacks.

At the mosque on that June morning, there was local anger at the "humiliation," Iraqis say, of seeing Tahma handcuffed and looking roughed up. Even after the sheikh described the role he played in the failed attack - three separate times, as requested by the Americans - there were still disbelieving stares.

"They apprehended our idol ... our teacher who tells us what is right and what is wrong," recalls Maktouf Aurabi, the interim caretaker of the mosque, who wears thick eyeglasses, and is missing several teeth. "We can't do anything at the moment for him. It was like he died in front of us."

"Just imagine a church, and they take the bishop away," adds Abdul Karim Jawad, also sitting in the sweltering shade of the mosque. "People like him a lot, and when the [postwar] looting started, he got on the microphone and told people it is not permitted. Looters even shot bullets at the mosque."