On the Origins of Crisis

A look back at America's fatal foreign policy blunder.

American soldier drapes a flag across a statue of Saddam.

Iraq. 2003. It all seemed like a game. The five of us had enough money, vehicles and weapons to form our own little guerrilla group. We began planning our first operation.

I knew from my reading of history what was coming — an occupation. None of us figured Saddam’s regime would survive the American invasion. The only question on our minds was what to do after the collapse. My first connection to the insurgency was through writers and intellectuals who, like me, had spoken out through published articles before the collapse about what was to come and what should be done. We shared an ideological view about the coming occupation, and we began thinking how we might act.

The first serious discussion about forming a resistance I took part in came about three weeks before the fall of Baghdad. There were about 64 of us. We met at a farmhouse south of Baghdad. We were all different ages. We all had different backgrounds, different levels of education. But all of us had two things in common: we had all been imprisoned under Saddam, and we were all Sunnis. The purpose of the meeting was to come up with a plan, basically, on how to organize a resistance. There were four senior figures who led the meeting. I cannot reveal the names, however, because several of them are still prominent figures in politics and religious affairs today.

The first thing we decided to do was to reach out to all the Sunni officers in the regime and urge them not to fight the Americans. It was no use to see them die for Saddam Hussein. We would need them for our cause. They had military experience, and they knew where to find all the weapons.

Why just the Sunnis? There were a lot of Shi’ite officers, nationalist men, who might have been interested in your cause.

We did not want to complicate things. A lot of us, myself included, were very conservative religiously. But that was not the point. We did not want to waste time on arguments over religion. Doing so would have been a distraction. That’s why we excluded Shi’ites. We knew there would be conflicts about that but our base of support then was basically conservative rural Sunnis. So we just decided to avoid this whole problem mostly for organization purposes, not sectarian or ideological reasons. Look, reaching out to former Ba’athist officers in Saddam’s army was already complicated enough. Most of us hated them and their socialist ideological view and their years serving the old regime. But we knew we needed them. They had military experience, and they knew where to find weapons. When the meeting broke up, we had all vowed to go out and recruit as many Sunni officers as we could to the cause and gather as much money as we might find from sympathizers. We agreed to meet again on the first of May. We all figured Saddam would be out of power by then at the latest, and that would be our time to begin.

The area where I was living at the time was home to many Iraqi army officers, and I personally recruited about 11 high-ranking officers and about 50 in lower ranks. I convinced them to keep whatever weapons they could find in a safe place and be ready to start the real war, the one that was coming. By the time Baghdad fell, altogether we gathered enough weapons to fight for three years, we estimated. We gathered a lot of money also in the days of the looting. A lot of the looting was organized by gangs. We went to the heads of these gangs after the fall and demanded half of what they had taken, for the cause. They knew we were serious. They knew that we had been gathering men and weapons, and they did not argue with us. In return for half the money, we promised to leave them alone from then on.

We met again as planned at the same place. There were a lot of arguments, of course. We had a lot of money and weapons, and some in the group were getting greedy. They wanted shares of money to support their families and so on. Some in the group were putting forward ideas about forming an Islamic state led by an emir. Others in the group like me were more concerned about coming up with attack strategies and getting started right away with strikes. That meeting broke up without any firm decisions or directives, but it didn’t matter. We had set things in motion with all the work we had done. We had opened the field for anyone who wanted to fight.

Some in the group were putting forward ideas about forming an Islamic state led by an emir.

I decided along with a few close friends of mine to ignore all these political arguments and simply get started with what we meant to do, fight the occupation. Five of us planned our first operation, a roadside bomb on Canal Street in Baghdad near a newly built American base.

To begin, none of us had experience in explosives. So we had to be taught how to make the device. There was an Egyptian from al-Qaeda who showed us how.

You mean from Osama bin Laden’s followers in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Yes. He had come from Afghanistan, through Pakistan and Iran to Iraq. From our group we dedicated an engineer who took lessons from this Egyptian. He was a typical Egyptian al-Qaeda guy. He had felt oppressed by the Egyptian government and had gone to join the fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion there. He had worked in Iraq in the oil fields in the 1970s, however, so he knew the place pretty well. He knew the roads. He knew the accent. And he had come to Iraq for jihad after the Americans invaded.

After a few lessons from this Egyptian, our engineer came back, and we went about making the device. We made it in a mosque one evening near the base, just after evening prayers. We took an old artillery shell and bored into the casing with a hand drill to reach the explosive material. You have to drill very slowly. You don’t want the friction to set it off. Then after you have a proper hole you put in a little C-4 explosive. On top of that you put a blasting cap or primer. We put several blasting caps, actually, because they were from old Iraqi stores and might be busted. When we were done making the bomb we carried it out of the mosque, all five of us. A lot of people saw us. Everyone knew what we were doing. No one said anything to us. We had made the thing in front of many people in the mosque. Even children were running around us playing as we worked.

We made our way to the road. There were some shepherds there with sheep. They saw us planting the bomb but said nothing. It all seemed like a game, honestly. A game you might play as a child. We ran a wire from the bomb through the fields off the road and found a hiding place where the leaves and grass kept us from view. From there we watched. We did not have to wait long. It was a busy road. The Americans used it a lot. After about an hour we saw a Humvee. This was in the early days when Humvees were often seen alone, not always in armored convoys like later. The Humvee approached, and at the right moment we detonated. The explosion flipped the Humvee onto its side, and after a moment a crowd gathered. We eased out of our hiding spot and joined the group on the street. I don’t know if the Americans in the Humvee were dead or not. I just saw them being carried away on stretchers. No one walked away as far as I could tell.

I can’t say how the others felt at that moment, but I was in tears. I didn’t know whether I was crying out of sadness or fear or happiness. Maybe all those reasons. For me, that first operation was like breaking free from a whole life of oppression. I had grown up under Saddam Hussein. I had spent nearly a decade of my youth in his jails. I had seen my country invaded by a foreign army. All my life I felt beaten down by one hand or another. And now, finally, for the first time I was hitting back.

Omar Yousef Hussein is thin and bookish-looking in his late thirties. He had served roughly eight years in Iraqi prisons for political dissidence but was released toward the end of 2002. Prior to the US invasion he was a historian and academic in Baghdad. He has since helped organize roughly 30 attacks on American forces.

Mark Kukis is an American journalist. This excerpt is taken from his book, Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, a collection of 70 individual Iraqi accounts of the war. Copyright © 2011 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.