Iraq: The face of the enemy

Robert Fisk penetrates the world of the Palestinian 'martyrs' flooding over the border to fuel the insurgency
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The Independent Online

"The last time I saw Hassan, he was standing in the gateway you've just walked through." Labiba Oweydah points at the garden door behind me with its shroud of bougainvillea. "I thought he was going to go and that I might not see him again and I said 'come back'. But he said to me: 'Leaving is not like returning. It is not important for me to return'." With those words, Hassan Jamal Sulieman Oweydah left the muck and rubble of the Mieh Mieh refugee camp in Lebanon to become a suicide bomber. In December 2004, he rammed his explosive-laden car into an American military convoy at Tal Afar, the first Palestinian "martyr" in the war against the United States' occupation of Iraq.

Hassan Oweydah's story - and his fiery end - have, until now, been a secret. Never before has the West seen the face of a suicide bomber in Iraq. But the violent saga of these young men is even more extraordinary - for it now transpires that 26 Palestinians from just two of Lebanon's refugee camps, Mieh Mieh and Ein Al-Hilweh, have been "martyred" in Iraq. Others have left from the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut, site of the infamous 1982 massacre by Israel's Lebanese militia allies. In all, well over 1,000 suicide bombers from across the Arab world have now blown themselves up in Iraq.

While all the Palestinians who arrived from Lebanon intended to die in Iraq, not all were car bombers. Faraj Mohamed Abdullah Zeidan, for example, died in a gun battle with US troops eight weeks ago. He was a friend of Hassan Oweydah. Ahmed Ali Ahwad, a member of the al-Ansar religious movement, was in charge of a local anti-aircraft ammunition store in Iraq and was killed by a US missile. Abu Mohamed al-Kurdi also died in a US air strike. But Ahmed al-Faran from Mieh Mieh - married with a daughter - appears to have been a suicide bomber. He was killed, his friends say, in a "martyrdom operation" in Fallujah.

The details of each death are carefully preserved by the Palestinians of Mieh Mieh and Ein Al-Hilweh. Another man, for example, attacked a US base exactly four months ago but while he was withdrawing - according to his colleagues - a wounded American soldier shot him dead. Two other Palestinians who died in combat in Iraq - Mohamed Mbarak and Mahmoud Mbarak - were cousins. Amateur video tape from Iraq now in the possession of The Independent shows Palestinians receiving weapons and combat training in the orchards along Iraq's Tigris river.

Conversations with Hassan Oweydah's family prove that the Palestinians ask for "martyrdom" in Iraq and are "called" to leave their homes on specific days - perhaps when the supply of suicide bombers is short. "We are all waiting to be called," one middle-aged man told me. He agreed that Syria was the only available transit passage for Palestinians leaving Lebanon for Iraq.

Hassan Oweydah's life was typical of those of his colleagues who were to die in Iraq. The family was originally from Acre in what is now northern Israel. They fled to Lebanon in 1948. Hassan Oweydah's father married four times and the boy had two brothers by his mother. Two of his uncles were killed in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And another relative had been killed by the Israelis in 1989. Oweydah was only 17 when he left for Iraq during the 2003 US invasion. He had already sold his car and gave the money away. "He was devout, a single man, always thinking of his family - but he talked of 'martyrdom' to his father and sisters," his first cousin, Maher Oweydah, said. "He arrived in Baghdad two days after the Americans reached the city and he called us on the phone from there. He had wanted to 'martyr' himself inside Palestine but he could not cross the [Lebanese] border - that is why he chose Iraq."

Hassan Oweydah's mother remembers another call from her son, just before his suicide attack. "He telephoned to say he was getting married in heaven. I said to him: 'Come back to Lebanon and you can get a wife here and go to "martyr" yourself in Palestine later'. He said: 'No I will find a bride in the higher firdous [paradise]'."

The family - and those of other Palestinians who have died in Iraq - say they have no direct connection with Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida. "Every Muslim wishes he had met bin Laden but to us he was not an organisation or an intellectual," Maher Oweydah says. "His jihadi ideology and military operations are very close to the Palestinian situation but he no longer represents an organisation. Bin Laden represents an ideology." Hassan Oweydah was apparently outraged at the US invasion of Iraq. "He thought this was a crusade against all Arab and Muslim centres," his cousin says. "He felt we should resist ... And his friend Faraj, who was 26, was very close to him. There were people in Iraq waiting to welcome them, of course."

Maher Oweydah, who has the mark of the Muslim prayer stone on his forehead, has been a political and religious influence on the family. "The world of justice and truth will prevail," he says. "The Americans have fallen into a trap in Iraq. They had no idea what they were walking into. Who would have thought, two days after the fall of Baghdad, when Hassan arrived there, that there would be such a resistance?"

So why did the Palestinians defend Saddam Hussein? "He supported the Palestinians and every Palestinian 'martyr's' family received $25,000 from him. But that is not defence of Saddam as such. For us, Saddam was a dictator oppressing his people. But if we are to talk of this so-called democracy of the Americans - well, of course, Iraqis were victims [of Saddam] but that period was definitely better than the American occupation. The massacres that the [American] occupiers are implicated in - that's what our 'martyrs' like Hassan have been fighting, the violation of an Arab and Muslim country." As for Saddam's oppression of Iraq's Shia Muslims, Maher Oweydah - like thousands of Iraqis Sunnis - has little sympathy. "The truth is that Saddam was a Sunni and his struggle was with the Shia. Then after the [US] invasion of Iraq, the Shia clerics and intellectuals and politicians entered the country on the American tanks."

Extended members of the Oweydah family - those who are waiting for further "calls" to Iraq - nodded at this narrative. Then they led me into a living room and played a DVD of Hassan Oweydah saying goodbye to his mother and talking of his forthcoming death. Brothers and sisters and Labiba Oweydah sat in silence to watch him - as they have done many times before - and to study the faces, mostly bearded, of the insurgents who crowd around him. At one point, the son can be seen laughing at the wheel of an Iraqi car. Was this the suicide vehicle, perhaps?

And what was Labiba Oweydah's reaction when she heard of her son's death? "I did not imagine it, not in a million years. It shocked me completely. I know he wanted to go to Palestine - but ... I could not imagine him being 'martyred' in Iraq. But I am a proud mother. I will meet him in heaven - in the higher heaven. I am happy he will be married in the spring of heaven."

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