TIME: Life Behind Enemy Lines


For Abu Ali, lethal rocket strikes against the U.S. occupation army are part of the regular routine. At the modest farmhouse of a fellow member of his network of insurgents one recent evening, Abu Ali--the nom de guerre he has chosen--welcomes seven fighters into a room lined with worn sofas. Despite the steady whoomp-whoomp of circling U.S. helicopters, the insurgents sit back, chain-smoking and chatting about weapons, tactics, the long lines to get gasoline, whose children are starting to crawl. A young man spreads a plastic sheet on the floor and lays out plates of roasted chicken, rice, bean soup and boiled vegetables. As the men eat, the talk is jovial, full of laughter and noisy boasting. The presence of a reporter for a U.S. magazine does not seem to faze them. "American soldier very afraid," roars Abu Ali. "We are not." A grinning fighter brags about what would have happened if he had known President George W. Bush would be in the Baghdad airport complex on Thanksgiving Day. "We would have ... whoosh!" he says, motioning as if firing a shoulder-launched missile.

Outside, under a sliver of moon, the cell's surveillance teams are hard at work, monitoring firing positions for their next assault. Spotters circle the area in taxis; others pose as workmen walking home and flip hand signals to passing colleagues. They all report to Abu Ali, a former officer in the Fedayeen Saddam militia who is well schooled in guerrilla tactics. A tall, sinewy figure with a weathered face, Abu Ali makes no secret of his ambition to attack Americans: "I want to kill all Bush's soldiers until they leave Iraq or it becomes their desert graveyard."

Checking his watch, Abu Ali abruptly rises from a sofa, throws on a woolen overcoat and orders everyone, including the reporter, to move out. The men pile into three cars and tear off in different directions. For more than an hour, they cruise near the launch site until all looks clear. Then a small team walks into a flat field to aim a rack of homemade launching tubes toward the lights of the Baghdad airport, home to U.S. chopper squadrons, supply units and the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, less than two miles away. The insurgents load three air-to-air rockets they have modified to launch from the ground, flash a signal with car headlights and disappear. A second team creeps in to fire the volley, while a security detail armed with assault rifles and machine guns forms a perimeter. Beyond these fighters, according to the cell's security chief, a ring of men with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades is watching for U.S. helicopters that might try to stop the assault.

A blacked-out attack chopper buzzes in the distance, and the low, heavy drone from what might be an AC-130 gunship rumbles terrifyingly near. Some of the insurgents scramble into a ditch. But Abu Ali calls them back. His plan is set. "God is great," he intones. The three rockets ignite at 2sec. intervals and screech away into the dark. In a matter of minutes, the raid is over. The firing team picks up the launch frame and loads it into the waiting cars. The perimeter detail melts into surrounding fields. The vehicles fan out to take team members--and the reporter--away. According to the insurgents, U.S. helicopters cased the field in vain after the cell left. "We move here with no problem," says Abu Ali. "This is the lie of American power." (A U.S. military spokesman later refused to confirm or deny whether any of the rockets hit the complex.)

This is one face of the insurgency challenging the American occupation of Iraq, an insurgency that so far has claimed the lives of 191 soldiers since President George W. Bush declared the end of "major combat operations" last May. And there are many more faces. U.S. authorities are struggling to illuminate who exactly is out there creeping around in the dark. "It's hard to get your hands around what the enemy looks like," says a U.S. official close to the occupation. In briefings, U.S. officials often claim to know the enemy's size, origins, motivations and chances of success. In private, however, they concede that they know a lot less than they would like about what they are up against. Pentagon optimists remain convinced that the insurgency is small and slowly choking to death. "Real insurgents need the support of the local population, and they don't have that," says a senior civilian aide who traveled in Iraq last weekend with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "They are going to wither and die. The question is how long it will take."

But it seems clear to others, including many American officers on the ground, that if the gangs of anti-U.S. fighters have not yet coalesced into a true insurgency, they are trying hard to become one. Attacks against coalition forces have grown bolder, better organized and broader based. A double ambush last week in Samarra "was the biggest, most sophisticated so far," says a senior intelligence official in Washington. As a Pentagon official sees it: "They know they can't beat us militarily, but they think they might be able to defeat us politically." The guerrillas are trying to drive U.S. casualties so high that the American public turns against the war, he says, adding, "They could succeed."

To prevent that, the U.S. needs to defeat the insurgents, a job that first requires figuring out who they are. U.S. intelligence experts are struggling to patch together a working profile from tidbits gleaned from captives, scraps of information of varying reliability and facts collected after attacks. They now believe the insurgents are a volatile mix of groups and free-lancers who include loyalists of the former ruling Baath Party, Fedayeen militiamen, former Republican Guard and intelligence agents, foreign jihadis, professional terrorists, paid common criminals and disaffected Iraqis. Men, in fact, like the well-educated, English-speaking fellow who appears on TIME's cover displaying a cherished weapon he is learning to use. American analysts generally believe that former regime loyalists, who stand to lose the most in a new Iraq, are calling the shots, while a diverse group of fighters are heeding the call. It has taken months for lines of communication to open among them. Now, say U.S. officials, these disparate elements seem to be learning how to work together toward a common goal: driving the U.S. out of Iraq.

Over the past three months, TIME has interviewed dozens of insurgents and disgruntled Iraqis, attended resistance meetings and viewed videotape of attacks against coalition forces. Often reporters have been required to submit to blindfolds, circuitous drives at night, vehicle switching, meetings that rarely occur in the same place and, of course, frequent personal searches for phones and tracking devices. (At no time did TIME reporters have prior information about attacks.) As seen from the inside, the insurgency looks as complex and diverse an enemy as the U.S. could possibly face. Here is what TIME found:


Under the apparent leadership of experienced former Saddam loyalists, the resistance network is growing more organized. Leaders of small cells that once acted independently now share intelligence and tactics and divide up targets. On another night in November, Abu Ali held a meeting of eight cell commanders and 17 lieutenants in a kerosene-lit house a good distance from Baghdad. The younger men cradled AK-47s; the senior men, each representing a different resistance cell with at least two dozen foot soldiers apiece, carried sidearms. Abu Ali gestured toward each man, who in turn rattled off his area of operation. The place names sketched a map of trouble spots for the U.S.: Baghdad, Dora, Hilla, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Ramadi.

Abu Ali is the network's technical expert and de facto chief. Trained in Europe for Saddam's weapons program, he specialized in missile warheads and electronics as an Iraqi official. Recently, he says, he has developed methods to launch helicopter missiles from the ground. Following a strict chain of command, cell leaders report to Abu Ali, passing intelligence up the chain and carrying instructions back down. Under his guidance the insurgents weigh information on U.S. troop movements and select targets. When they are ready to strike, they quickly activate men and weaponry. The cells work in their own regions, but from time to time, squads are dispatched to other jurisdictions to blur U.S. attempts to identify them. On occasion, Abu Ali says, they also conduct larger, coordinated raids.

Former officials of Saddam's regime tend to have the technical know-how and the cash to mount operations. The organizers are generally midlevel officials from Saddam's extensive security apparatus. "They're colonels, lieutenant colonels and majors who are really the hard-core loyalists," U.S. Major General Raymond Ordierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, tells TIME. While the deposed dictator is the ideological inspiration for these loyalists, chances seem slim that he is directing attacks himself. "The communication involved," says a Pentagon official in Iraq, "would expose him too much to capture." Instead, U.S. officials believe, strategic direction for the resistance is left to Saddam's longtime second-in-command Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the highest-ranking regime official still at large. He was the target of a 1,000-soldier raid in Kirkuk last week. Al-Duri escaped, but the operation nabbed his deputy, who could potentially deliver a phone book of resistance commanders receiving money and orders from al-Duri. The wanted man's wife and daughter turned themselves in to the Americans two weeks ago. "She was tired of living out of a suitcase," says a U.S. intelligence operative in Iraq. "She wants the $10 million," the reward being offered for helping capture al-Duri.

Financing and armaments appear to be in plentiful supply. When Abu Ali's network runs low on resources, it turns to a man identified only as "the Emir," a shadowy loyalist leader who summons Abu Ali to meetings at irregular intervals. "We are not rich men," Abu Ali says, "but we have everything." Old Soviet surface-to-air missiles that had been stockpiled by Saddam's regime go for upwards of $1,000 apiece on the black market, yet Abu Ali's organization has them in abundance. It also has access to a pipeline of weapons flowing across Iraq's borders. Another major Baghdad cell leader, Mohammed, happily displays the latest acquisition, a batch of 60mm mortars with markings in English that were hidden in a boggy field and retrieved by a farmer's wife. When asked how the group obtained them, Mohammed responds in a word: "Syria."

Abu Ali's most frightening plans involve his desire to employ unconventional weapons. His most prized possession, he says, is a cache of 82mm mortar rounds. Mohammed displays one of the rounds and proclaims, "This is a chemical mortar." Encased in a green storage tube with a flip-lock lid, the weapon has liquid sloshing inside a bulbous head reeking with a putrid odor that burns the nostrils. The Russian markings on the weapon identify it as a TD-42 liquid, high-explosive mortar. It's impossible to know what is really in the device or if the boasts of Abu Ali and Mohammed are true. Iraqi scientists in the Military Industrialization Commission in the 1980s and early 1990s imported Soviet munitions to refill with unknown substances. Abu Ali claims that his cache came from that commission, and he is convinced the mortar contains a highly lethal gas. His group, he says, is just waiting for the right U.S. target and the right meteorological conditions to use it. When a reporter expresses skepticism, Abu Ali smiles and says, "Wait and see."


Not all the rank-and-file fighters are die-hard Saddam supporters. Many are thought to be devout Iraqi Muslims who believe that fighting "infidel" occupiers is a Koranic imperative. Tensions exist between former military officers and paid militia, called fedayeen in insurgent circles, and the Muslim fighters who label themselves mujahedin, or holy warriors. The very name indicates that they would like the insurgency to become a sanctioned religious jihad against the U.S. So far, though, the groups have largely set aside their differences to focus on a common goal.

Some of these mujahedin are foreign. An unknown number of passionate but untrained young Muslims from all over the Middle East have been slipping into Iraq, eager for a chance to fight Americans in an Islamic country. According to U.S. intelligence officials, the men tend to come from places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen and Syria, whipped up by enthusiastic imams back home. Once across the border, they head to mosques to link up with local resistance cells. U.S. officials believe that most of them then carry out missions under the orders of Saddam loyalists. "They use the fundamentalists as cannon fodder," especially for lethal attacks on soft targets involving car bombs, say the officials. "Suicide bombers are generally not Iraqis or former regime types."

Still, some analysts may be overstating the foreign presence. North and west of Baghdad, in the rebellious Sunni triangle, which the 4th Infantry patrols, Odierno says no more than 30 or 40 foreigners have been picked up. Many dedicated Islamists in other countries have no affection for Saddam loyalists, whom they regard as having little religious faith. Nor do they agree with tactics that target innocent civilians, which pious Muslims abhor. The resistance groups of former regime members TIME talked to said they have had no contact with non-Iraqi fighters.

But the mujahedin's ranks are easily filled by Iraqis. A 29-year-old fighter who gives his name as Abu Abdullah agreed to meet in a small village outside Ramadi, home to many regime loyalists. He says he rejoiced at Saddam's downfall, believing it would bring an Islamic government to power. But religion now motivates him to oppose the U.S. "Islam tells us that no one should occupy our land," says Abu Abdullah, who earns his living by building houses along the Euphrates River. "The Koran allows us to kill anyone to defend our country." He contends that some sheiks and mosques in the area support his group of about 15 fighters. But he won't allow his cell to target civilians. "We believe we have only the right to kill soldiers," he says.

Abu Abdullah started planning for a guerrilla war when Baghdad fell, back in April. In the ensuing chaos, he and a few colleagues looted several ammunition stores. "For days we carried weapons and ammunition away and put them in hiding places," says Abu Abdullah, a chubby man in a gray robe. "We knew we would continue fighting the Americans." Abu Abdullah's wife encouraged him to fight the "infidels," he says. "If I am killed, she will be proud of me. We will meet in paradise." Abu Abdullah says he fights only for his convictions. "Nobody pays us to fight," he says. "We fight because America has come to kill our people." He's grateful U.S. soldiers came to Iraq to topple Saddam, but he thinks they should leave. "The Americans got rid of him," he says. "Now we have to get rid of the Americans."


An unanswered question is whether professional terrorists, particularly those linked to al-Qaeda, have infiltrated the insurgency. Senior U.S. intelligence officials say a small number of dedicated terrorists slipped into the country just after the U.S. invasion. "They are burrowing way down, looking for opportunities to strike for maximum political impact," contends Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a Democrat who toured Iraq with colleague Hillary Clinton.

But it's unclear whom these terrorists are affiliated with or how important they are to the overall scope of the insurgency. Some intelligence officials point a finger at Ansar al-Islam, a small Kurdish terrorist group that operated out of the northern mountains of Iraq against local Kurd rulers before the U.S. invasion. In March, during the war, Ansar's mountain headquarters was bombed by U.S. air strikes that scattered its leaders and killed a few hundred fighters. Intelligence officials say some of the highly trained men slipped away to regroup in Iran. Those who took refuge in Iranian Kurdish cities have been crisscrossing the border in teams of two or three to launch attacks. Analysts in Washington say Ansar operatives appear to be roaming the country, looking for targets on their own or occasionally hooking up with regime loyalists. "They're still alive. They're still a factor. They're a danger," says a senior U.S. intelligence official.

According to a U.S. official in Iraq, Ansar is transforming itself from a dispersed remnant into reconstituted cells operating locally under the guidance of leaders who escaped to Europe. Few fighters are as qualified to carry out the recent spate of suicide-bomb attacks in Iraq as the men trained in Ansar's camps. Before the war, according to a Kurdish intelligence operative who recently briefed a team of Pentagon officials, Ansar soldiers training to be suicide bombers were given elaborate mock funerals to prepare them mentally for their martyrdom. After recently interrogating two captured fighters, the Kurd believes there are Ansar cells operating in Kirkuk, Mosul, Samarra and Haweja. "They have sophisticated communications methods," he says, and they keep in touch with former intelligence contacts in the Saddam regime.

An Ansar lieutenant, a 55-year-old lawyer who uses the name Abu Wael, was the Iraqi intelligence service's main contact within the organization, and he is thought to be in Baghdad acting as the group's cell leader. The U.S. suspects that Ansar maintains close ties with al-Qaeda. A number of Ansar fighters trained in Osama bin Laden's Afghan camps, and U.S. officials say Ansar takes its cues from Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, viewed by Washington as a top-level al-Qaeda affiliate. An Arab intelligence official believes al-Zarqawi is playing a major role in lethal attacks in Iraq that bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda sophistication in terms of planning, timing and technical ability. Based on information from arrested operatives, the Arab official says there are indications that al-Zarqawi has become al-Qaeda's No. 1 leader in the Middle East.

The Bush Administration, for its part, wants to portray the insurgency as mainly homegrown. That allows Washington to claim, as it repeatedly does, that when the die-hards run out of men and munitions, the insurgency will dissipate. It also allows Bush to avoid the charge that the war actually increased danger to the U.S. by stirring up a hornet's nest of terrorism. Yet the Administration's greatest fear is that the rebellion will get too local if the general population turns on the occupiers. "We minimize their impact at our peril," says a Pentagon official.

In a new effort to blunt the insurgency, the U.S. Central Command plans to form an Iraqi quick-reaction force that can identify and counter the guerrillas better than the U.S. can. Commanders want the five main political parties in the temporary governing council to pool their militias in a single unit by Dec. 26. But experts like Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security specialist at London's Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, warn that politically aligned militias are a prescription for civil war once the insurgents have been vanquished.

And the disparate elements that make up the rebellion may also find it hard to hang together. Breaking the Ramadan fast last month, Abu Ali talked to his fighters about civilian casualties. "I will kill 10 Iraqis to slaughter one American," he said. Abu Raheman, a former military officer who was playing with his 10-month-old son, retorted that a dead G.I. was not worth a single Iraqi. Mohammed, another ex-army man, said he couldn't abide harming the very people they were fighting for. Abu Ali grunted and waved a dismissive hand. "They are not like me," he said. "I drink blood." The others sat eyeing him impassively. "One day when there are no more Americans, I will kill the mujahedin," he joked, running his finger over his throat. Not, perhaps, if someone gets him first.

--With reporting by Massimo Calabresi and Douglas Waller/Washington, Bruce Crumley/Paris, Mark Thompson/Baghdad and Vivienne Walt/Ramadi