Recent Middle East press reports reveal religious leaders have encouraged Arab youth to travel to Iraq to become “martyrs” in a “holy war” against the United States, often with the aid of their governments and the enthusiastic approval of parents.
However, one of the many news features highlighted a Palestinian jihad warrior who went to Iraq for the sake of Allah only to discover, to his shock, the Iraqi people rejected him and were intent on getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
The press reports were translated and compiled by Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Media Research Institute or MEMRI.
A report in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar told of 36 Islamists from Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Syria who received visas from the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut to volunteer as martyrs.
In Baghdad, Sheikh Ahmad al-Kubaysi praised the Arab volunteers, reported MEMRI.
“These young men who came here from other Muslim countries to defend Iraq are very brave,” he said. “They left their homes and comfortable lives to protect fellow Muslims. That is the most important form of jihad. These mujahideen (holy warriors) are guaranteed paradise.”
Parents of two Saudi jihad fighters killed in Iraq told the Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat of their pleasure in their sons’ actions.
“I thank Allah that [our son] attained what he sought,” said the father of Suheil Al-Sahili, 28. “For 14 years he sought [martyrdom]. He always pointed to his head and wished that a rifle bullet would split his forehead, and we have been told that that is what happened.”
Al-Sahali also fought in Afghanistan in 1992, then Chechnya and Bosnia, according to his brother.
“After Chechnya, he returned to Saudi Arabia … and then we didn’t hear from him,” his brother said. “We got a phone call from him finally, in which he said he was going to the jihad in Iraq together with volunteers at the northern front.”
The brother said his family received news about Al-Sahali from Internet forums.
“We always felt that he was a prisoner in this world while his heart was in the next world,” he said.
In the city of Al-Quteif, the brother of Abd Al-Hadi Al-Shehri, 28, told the paper: “From a young age he wanted jihad … after fulfilling this commandment of pilgrimage to Mecca, there was no contact with him until news of his martyrdom reached us.”
Parental permission required
MEMRI notes some limitations have been put on the jihad warriors in certain Arab nations. In Qatar, an Islamic law court ruled the warriors must be called to jihad by a religious authority and require parental permission.
“It is considered against Islam to travel to another country for jihad without permission from one’s parents,” said the Shariah court.
At least one Middle East voice publicly questioned the whole enterprise.
In articles in the Egyptian daily Al-Gumhuriya, Egyptian historian ‘Abd Al-Adheem Ramadhan bemoaned the fate of thousands of young Egyptians who went to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight a holy war, according to MEMRI.
The scholar said these youth were manipulated by jihad slogans and miscalculated the realities of modern-day warfare.
“The Islamic nation still holds the meaning of jihad as it had been in the past when the mujahid carried his sword and rode his horse into the battle field … . This interpretation persisted despite the developments that occurred in weaponry and training … and [despite] the emergence of tanks, airplanes, airplane carriers, and explosives. As soon as the Islamic nation gets involved in a war, young religious Muslims throughout the Islamic world rush to scream the jihad battle-cry and to go to war … . Obviously, the Islamic countries cannot resist these noble feelings … so they open the door to volunteerism, and open their borders to religious youngsters to head to the battle fields. And there, to their surprise, they find out that war is not what they expected, it is not [fought] with swords and spears. It is a war of tanks, planes, air strikes and the like.”
Ramadhan said when thousands of Egyptian youth “were seized with enthusiasm and demanded to go to Iraq for jihad,” they went unhindered.
“Naturally, the Egyptian government was unable to prevent them from going to Iraq, lest it would be accused of opposition to jihad and failure to fight.”
The Egyptian historian called efforts by “Islamic elements in labor unions and others” to encourage the youth were a “propaganda ploy.”
“They knew perfectly well that if those youngsters go to Iraq, they would fall into the same hell-fire that the Iraqi people faced,” he said. “So, we witnessed thousands of young Egyptians who left their country and their relatives who needed them.”
In Iraq, the regime opened its doors for the volunteer youth but did not enlist them in its army and give them “necessary protection,” Ramadhan said.
They fought in remote areas, away from the Iraqi army, he noted, and “when Baghdad fell, they did not know that, and continued to fight courageously.”
“They did not even hear about the disgraceful disappearance of the Iraqi leadership, of Saddam Hussein and his men who abandoned their army and their people,” Ramadhan said. “They did not know that the Iraqi regime let them down and that [the Iraqi regime] was not fighting to defend Iraq, but fighting a lost battle to defend itself.”
Rejected by Iraqis
MEMRI said many articles in the Arab press have focused on ill treatment of the jihad fighters by Iraqis. A Lebanese volunteer who returned from Iraq said Iraqi officials isolated the volunteers and the Iraqis themselves “hunted them whenever they could, reported the Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat of London.
One volunteer from Lebanon said he was exposed “to more Iraqi friendly fire than American fire.”
“The Iraqi people refused to accept the volunteers among them and betrayed them by leaving them exposed,” he said.
One report said 10 Arab nationals, mostly Syrians who volunteered to fight for Saddam’s regime, were executed publicly in Baghdad during the war because they refused to fight in residential areas, according to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
Another report in the London paper mentioned the “Iraqi Shi’a in the Iraqi capital considered the Arab volunteers to be supporters of Osama bin Laden who they said had nothing to do with us.”
Four Arab volunteers who returned home from Baghdad to Damascus and Cairo claimed Iraqi citizens were directing American forces to the hideouts of the Arab volunteers in exchange for large sums of money.
They said the American forces viewed the volunteers as one of the most important targets because they could carry out suicide operations against groups of American soldiers, according to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
An oath to Saddam
Before it was shut down by coalition forces, Saddam’s Iraqi TV featured interviews with jihad fighters and showed them marching in formation, chanting “Allah Akbar,” or “Allah is great.”
An Egyptian fighter named Muhammad Ridha said on Iraqi TV: “Thanks to Allah, I arrived in June to volunteer in Saddam’s ‘Jerusalem Army.’ I returned [to Egypt], but Allah decreed that I return [to Iraq], and I thank Him for that.”
Ridha said he left behind four daughters and a son.
“I came to fight [the war of] jihad,” he said, ” and I take an oath in front of the leader Saddam Hussein that I will die as a martyr and that I do not want to return to Egypt. I say to all the Arabs and Muslims that jihad is our duty.”
Abd Al-Karim Abd Al-‘Azzam, a fighter from Aleppo, Syria, told Iraqi TV he wanted to “send a message to our Muslim brethren throughout the world.”
“Brothers, we are not defending Iraq only, but all the Muslim countries,” he said. “It started in Iraq, but Syria, Lebanon and other Muslim countries will follow. How long will we keep silent, how long will we wait? America and the Jews may decide next to bomb Mecca and Al-Madina (Medina), what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for them to enter Al-Madina?”
Abdallah from Algeria, added: “I call upon the entire Muslim nation to stand as one and defend the Muslim nation … truth is ours.”
Abd Al-‘Aziz Mahmoud Hawwash, a suicide volunteer from Syria, said in an Iraqi TV interview: “We are here, and we left our wives and children in order to defend the Arab and Muslim nation.”
“We came as [martyrs] and we pray that Allah accepts our martyrdom for His sake,” he said.
Another volunteer suicide-fighter from Syria said: “I came from Syria to fight along with our Iraqi brothers because this land is the land of the prophets and is the natural treasure of the Arabs.”
The jihad warrior asserted “the Americans, Zionists, and the British want to control the oil and the natural resources of the Arab world. They say that Iraq has arms, but it is a lie. They want the oil and they want a crusade, but we will be the drawn swords in the hand of the jihad fighter Saddam Hussein.”
Another volunteer, who did not mention his home-country, stated: “I send a message to the blood-shedding criminal Bush, and to his servant Tony Blair, and his new servant the Spanish [Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar], you want a crusade and we are ready for that, with the help of Allah.”
“Oh [Muslim] nation, [which] is a billion and four hundred million strong, don’t you see what is happening in Palestine?” the jihad warrior said. “What happened to the boiling Arab blood in your veins? We hope that you will come to the training camps in Iraq.”
A fighter from Syria said: “Listen Oh Bush, and listen America, we are not the aggressors, you crossed the ocean and came here to slaughter our children and our women, and the most important thing that they came for is this religion … . We came to seek martyrdom and to raise the chant: Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar.”
The ‘hope’ of martyrdom
In an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Islamic activist Sheikh Muhammad Shu’fat, a Palestinian from Jordan, said after arriving in Baghdad, “I felt my heart beat with the hope of achieving victory or martyrdom.”
“I did not go to defend the Ba’ath regime, but the persecuted Iraqi people who were suffering from injustice,” he said. “I defended the Arab and Islamic land under occupation and aggression in advance of the takeover of the [entire Islamic] nation.”
Asked how he explained the Iraqis’ joy at Saddam’s fall, Sheikh Shu’fat replied: “This is a message to the Arab rulers that they must make peace with their people and give them more freedom, so the people will unite with the armies in resistance to the colonialist aggression … . I do not feel sorrow for any Arab ruler who is brought down.”
Sheikh Shu’fat said he had no explanation for the fall of Baghdad.
“Suddenly, the Iraqi resistance disappeared,” he said. “…We were confused because something we did not understand had happened. Our hope was to achieve victory or martyrdom. [The Iraqi soldiers] went back home and turned into ordinary citizens.”
He said, nevertheless, “I am happy that I waged jihad for the sake of Allah. I suggested to [the Iraqi soldiers] that they carry out martyrdom operations, but they said it was too soon.”
The sheikh said some of the Arab volunteers did not return to their countries because they had no money for the trip, and some had their passports taken by the Iraqis.
Shocked that Iraqis sided with U.S.
A Palestinian fighter, interviewed by Al-Ahram, the Egyptian daily, expressed shock at the Iraqi people’s rejection of the jihad warriors.
“‘I cannot believe that I am alive. I was in hell and Allah brought me back,” said the fighter, who gave the pseudonym Abu Khaled.
In early April, he joined other Arab volunteers in the battle at Baghdad’s airport.
At the beginning of the war, he says he was shocked at the sense of panic that seemed to pervade among the Iraqi troops.
“The Iraqi soldiers were scared to death, with some even fainting,” he said. “I did not understand their attitude then.”
Now, Abu Khaled believes the soldiers must have sensed there was a conspiracy.
After fighting to defend the Baghdad airport, Abu Khaled said he walked 12 miles to reach the capital.
“Exhausted, tense and with almost no food or drink for several days, I reached a house where I thought I could finally find shelter,” he said.
After an Iraqi man opened the door, Abu Khaled announced proudly his identity as an Arab jihad fighter.
“The man slapped the door in my face and said, ‘Go away we do not want you in our country,'” he said.
Al-Ahram notes, “It was then that Abu Khaled realized that the Iraqi people had a different agenda.”
“To his astonishment,” the paper said, “he was later told that the Iraqis wanted to get rid of the dictatorship and oppression of Saddam Hussein at any cost.”
In this context, said the paper, “the Arab volunteers were regarded by them as supporters of the regime, who are cashing dollars, only to prolong the Iraqi suffering.”
Abu Khaled said he was not a defender of the Saddam regime.
“I joined the resistance to defend the Iraqi people,” said a shocked and bewildered Abu Khaled, according to Al-Ahram. “I wanted to take part in the war against our brethren in Iraq. I came to defend the dignity of the Arab nation.”
Abu Khaled said he later joined fellow Palestinians helping resist intensive coalition strikes.
“The Palestinians’ resistance delayed the coalition forces’ capture of the center of Baghdad for a whole day,” he recalled. “I saw one Palestinian kill five Americans with one missile.”
But even more staggering to Abu Khaled, reported Al-Ahram, was “the realization that many Iraqi civilians did not want to see further resistance to the invasion forces struck.”
“While we were defending ourselves from the coalition strikes, I saw an Iraqi in a nearby building shooting at us,” he said. “I had to protect myself and my people, so I fired an RPG missile at his house. While he was not killed, the second floor of the house was destroyed.”
After the U.S. captured the center of Baghdad on April 9, Abu Khaled decided to return to his hotel. He discovered, however, he was no longer welcome.
“They welcomed me as a Palestinian before the war because they feared Saddam Hussein; now that he is gone they do not see any reason to give me shelter,” he said. “They told me that they needed the room because they have other people who offered more for the room.”
Al-Ahram said Abu Khaled is now without shelter and is dependent on the generosity of others for food, tea or coffee.
“I avoid being alone or recalling what happened to me,” the fighter said, “because whenever I remember what happened at the airport, how I was abandoned – I feel betrayed and devastated.”