Iraq war lures young foreign fighters eager to defend their religion


BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon - The 35-year-old teacher had many things to live for - a doctorate, a steady job, a healthy salary - but still he decided to leave home, to make his way to Syria and then sneak over the border into Iraq, intent on fighting Americans, even if it meant dying in a suicide attack.

In the beginning, the schoolteacher had struggled to decide how he felt about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It spelled humiliation and sorrow to Arabs. But as an Arab who has tasted the despair of despotism, he had a small spot of hope.

"At first, I thought, 'OK, the Americans want to bring democracy to the region,'" he said.

That was before he turned on the television to the grainy images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. "The human triangle. The woman dragging the man by the leash," said the teacher, a broad man with a clipped beard and intense gaze. "These images affected me deeply. The shame the Americans brought."

He decided that sitting in Lebanon wasn't enough.

Over dates and sweet coffee in a middle-class living room here, he recently spoke in steady, measured tones about his fervor to fight for Muslims against U.S. troops - and his decision to leave the battle in Iraq to make his way home again.

The story of the teacher, who spoke on condition that neither he nor his hometown be named, reflects the oft-stated notion that the war in Iraq has created a regional jihad. The road to Iraq has become a trail of independence in the minds of some men, a way for young Muslims to come of age, to join the battles they see on television.

His journey began here, in a valley stretching like a gritty carpet between the mountains of southern Lebanon hard against the Syrian border.

Foreign fighters are expected to pay their own way, from smugglers' fees to meals. Many of the would-be mujahedeen, or holy warriors, simply can't afford to go, said Shaaban Ajani, the mayor of a town in the Bekaa called Majdal Anjar.

Within Iraq, there is broad consensus that foreign fighters form only a small part of the insurgency roiling the country. Still, in neighboring countries the psychological resonance of the struggle - and the adulation and envy of the foreign fighters - has been profound.

In his town, tensions between a frustrated people and their government exploded this fall. Lebanese agents had swept through, raiding what they described as an al-Qaida cell.

Ten people were arrested. One died in custody shortly after his arrest. The government said he suffered a heart attack. Witnesses said his body came home covered with cigarette burns, bruises and scorch marks left by electrical shock.

"America has declared war against the Sunni people," said the mufti of the Bekaa, Khalil el-Mais. "Are Muslims forbidden to defend themselves? Jihad is the defense of country, and of honor. How can you watch television every night and not go?"

It was that conviction that inspired the schoolteacher to make his way to Iraq.

After he decided to go, he waited for a break in classes. It was a quick bus ride to Syria. He set off last spring with a shortwave radio, a small bundle of clothes and some cash.

The teacher had collected $3,500 for his trip. He had a local connection, a friend from the Bekaa who had joined foreign fighters in Iraq and who had agreed to vouch for the teacher.

He remembers standing, on a cold spring night, on the line between Syria and Iraq. The four border-jumpers before him had been caught by Syrian troops. The smuggler he had hired to ferry him to Baghdad was edgy. They would hike through the desert rather than chance the roads.

The schoolteacher walked all night through the Iraqi desert until he reached the outskirts of a small town. Then they drove into Baghdad to meet a contact beneath a downtown bridge.

He was taken to a villa in Baghdad that was crowded with dozens of men from Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Syria and other Arab countries. They would order out for food, and when it arrived, they would argue over who would pay.

After about eight days, it was the teacher's turn to move. They took him to Fallujah in a battered car. He believed the time for his suicide mission was near, but he ended up in another Iraqi house, surrounded by Saudis who were waiting for their own suicide missions. The men were organized into platoons, the teacher said, with every 50 or so foot soldiers under the guidance of a commander.

"Many of the guys in the house had very limited military training," he said. "But it doesn't take much military training to get in the car and blow yourself up."

After a week of waiting in Fallujah, the teacher said, he began to feel guilty. It wasn't that he became frightened, he said - but the dreams he'd had in Lebanon didn't match with the mundane reality in Iraq. He felt more like an interloper than a savior.

"I realized I was staying in somebody's house, and the owners were moving from place to place to make room for us," he said. "Then I realized they didn't need us, ... we were sort of hampering the Iraqis."

The foreigners' accents made them a security threat, and their dormitories drew U.S. bombs into residential neighborhoods. Iraqi collaborators with the U.S.-led forces would throw compact discs onto rooftops to mark the homes where the mujahedeen were sleeping for U.S. aircraft, the teacher said.

"We were a burden, and the Iraqis could take up the battle," he said. "I came to realize that they didn't need people, they needed money much more than people. I realized I'd be of greater use if I financially supported them."

He walked back through the desert. At the border, he says, he spent $200 bribing Syrian officials to let him pass.

Now he is home, back among friends envious of his adventures. He has occasional regrets about returning to Lebanon.

Other men from the Bekaa also have come home, community leaders said. But the humiliation that drove them into the desert festers on, given in regular doses by the evening news.

"When I saw the man shot in the mosque, I wanted to go back," the teacher said. "They say it's a war crime. I think the whole war is a war crime."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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