It is not surprising that on Thursday, November 13, a self-styled “Al Qaeda Commander in Iraq”, called Al-Hijazi began issuing statements from a base “south of Fallujah”.
This Sunni Muslim town, 65 km (40 miles) west of Baghdad, has undergone a metamorphosis since the fall of the Iraqi capital seven months ago. Once a bastion of Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath party, Fallujah is now the hub of Saddam loyalist-al Qaeda collaboration in the guerrilla-cum-terror war against the United States. It has been reinvented, as the Americans recently discovered, as a quasi-holy city. Sunni Muslims point at the “Sunni Najef”, while the Shiites have dubbed the town the “Sunni Qom” – a reference to Khomeini’s legendary center of revolutionary Islamic scholarship in Iran.
Saddam’s tacticians, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources have reported before, decided that the best way to dramatically broaden their support base was to Islamize their campaign against US forces. To this end, Fallujah has been converted into a home away from home for al Qaeda zealots who have spent a fortune building the town up into a center of radical religious learning.
In six months, hundreds of madressas have sprung up in Fallujah, modeled on pre-Afghan War Pakistani Peshawar and present-day Damascus.
Friends of Saddam, as soon as they were appointed as principals of the Islamic schools, began publishing fatwas with immediate effect on the Sunni population.
Intelligence assessments put the amount the deposed president’s backers have poured into the madressa project of Fallujah as ranging from $20 million to $30 million. Some was spent to hire Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian and Saudi religious instructors. Funds were also invested in building dormitories complete with kitchens and dining halls with accommodation for thousands of Muslim students gathered in from all corners of Iraq.
As in Peshawar and Damascus, the madressas serve the dual function of fundamentalist indoctrination and combat training for terrorists and guerrilla fighters.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-intelligence sources report that Fallujah and its new facilities have been designed for the intake of the thousands of fighters and intermingled hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists who are flocking to Iraq from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. Saddam spent a comparative pittance on this armed infrastructure while the US Congress debated the allocation of $87.5 billion for Iraq’s reconstruction. Both of America’s enemies funnel millions a month to support the madressa network as the opponents of US President George W. Bush scoff at any attempt to link Saddam diehards with al Qaeda.
Fallujah also provides Iraq’s Sunni Muslims with an alternative source of funds to save them turning to the US-appointed Governing Council or the Americans. For Fallujah’s Sunnis this is a windfall. No longer must they depend on Baghdad for income or travel to Tikrit to prove their loyalty to Saddam. They can avail themselves of funds in Fallujah and boast of their independence.
The doctrine imparted in the madressas has spread through the ranks of Saddam diehards.
Baathists suddenly find themselves in a holy war against the Americans, burning with fanatical fervor to fight the infidels. Fallujah has become their main base of operation – but also the arena for joint action with their allies, Arab fighters and al Qaeda terrorists. The religious schools are logistical bases where decisions are made, ad hoc, as to which of the martyrs-in-the-making will embark on missions against the occupiers.
The system, well tried in Peshawar and the semi-autonomous regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, sets up an almost impermeable shield against infiltration by foreign intelligence services and a capture-proof sanctuary. Typically, a group of 10 to 15 fighters will set out from a madressa to stage a grenade attack in Ramadi or Baghdad. They then return via back roads to the schools, where they blend into a student body of thousands. US troops bursting into a religious school in pursuit of a crew which minutes before had fired SA-7 shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles or rocket propelled grenades, are met with rows of “students” hunched over their Korans. US military planners are caught between a rock and a madressa. Shelling a religious school is an unholy option. And there is no way in heaven or earth that the Iraqi Governing Council can solve this dilemma, no matter how much administrative responsibility it takes on.