In the battle of Fallujah, it was one of the first times the Iraqi forces, the newly trained Iraqi forces, were deployed with the American soldiers. Two of these new Iraqi special forces soldiers were given to our unit, and the officers who were concentrating on the battle made absolutely no effort to integrate them, to give them the equipment they needed; they didn’t even have body armor; they didn’t have sleeping bags. There was no understanding that these guys, these Iraqis, would be their best allies in the field, that it was important to find out where they were from, whether they were Shia or Sunni, and what their unit was. I was able to write some of this for the Web page, but it never made it into mainstream television news because that needed to be the headline, the big story of the day. This is more peripheral stuff that’s softer — very telling — but certainly not hard.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
The Guardian, Getty Images

I remember that day in Fallujah [when I was embedded with insurgents, in November 2004]. It’s raining. The night before the town was bombed — it was a really rough night — we didn’t sleep. And in the morning I was sitting in this yard outside the house we were staying in, and there was this Yemeni guy, and he was a normal guy, he is a guy that you would meet everywhere. And this guy was cleaning his weapons. I was sitting next to him, taking a couple shots of him cleaning his weapons, taking pictures, and it was raining.

And then the guy started talking, and he was telling his story, how he grew up and why he came to Iraq. And this guy was part of one of the Arab jihadis coming from all over the world, coming to Iraq, coming to fight in Fallujah. I felt so weird. It wasn’t my first experience with insurgents but it was as if someone just opened a door, and suddenly I was on the other side. And I was seeing what was happening. The guy was telling me his story, he kept talking and I was taking notes and writing. And I was so overwhelmed by what I was hearing, not because it’s an amazing story — it’s just the story of this Yemeni man and how he came to Syria and was smuggled across Iraq, it’s the same story that we all knew, how jihadis were coming — but it was on a personal level, it was him talking about his family back in Yemen, him saying goodbye to his little daughter without telling her that he was going to Iraq to die, the personal level of the story. And that was just like really weird and amazing to understand the personal background of those people and why they were there fighting.

Of course, there were these moments when they went to pray and they asked me to go and pray, and I said, “No, no thank you, I don’t pray,” and they were trying to tell me why I should pray. And then this other guy comes, and he listens to this whole conversation and of people preaching to me and trying to convince me to pray. And then he’s asking, “What’s wrong with him?” and they’re saying, “He’s not praying.” “Why?” “Because he’s not a Muslim.” And then he’s just kind of naturally saying, “Why don’t we kill him?” the same way you would say, “Oh, why don’t you have a cup of tea? Why don’t you kill that fly on your shoulder?” He is just asking, “Why don’t we kill him?” and they are saying, “No, no, no, we are in a kind of truce with him. We can’t kill him because we gave him the truce, we gave him permission to stay with us.” And it’s just these little moments where you leave Fallujah, and like two years after Fallujah you are thinking, “What was I thinking?” And I was like “Fucking hell, what did I do to myself?” I was like sitting with those guys, and “Why don’t we kill him?”

 

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