BAGHDAD, Iraq—A mid-30s Iraqi electrician whose religious fervor drew suspicion from Saddam Hussein's agents long before U.S. forces invaded Iraq became the most-feared man in Fallujah during the city's six months under insurgent control.
While U.S. official pronouncements about rebel leaders have focused on Jordanian terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, rebel fighters and others who escaped the U.S. assault on Fallujah say the real power there was wielded by Omar Hussein Hadid, technically al-Zarqawi's underling but in fact the Iraqi face that allowed al-Zarqawi to remain there.
"Inside Fallujah, Omar was the leader. Even Abu Musab couldn't say no to him," said a mufti, or spiritual adviser, who sat on the council that directed the insurgents in Fallujah. Now hiding in Baghdad, the cleric spoke to Knight Ridder on condition of anonymity.
"If Abu Musab didn't cultivate the support of Omar, he never would've been allowed to stay in Fallujah," the mufti said.
U.S. officials for the past year have struggled to know who precisely is directing the Iraqi insurgency in the so-called Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad. That information was especially difficult to come by when the insurgency was a shadowy movement made up of mobile groups conducting ambushes and planting roadside bombs.
But during the months that Fallujah was under insurgent control, leaders became more public, holding meetings and directing their forces. Now, with the U.S. assault scattering those leaders and their followers, details of who ran the city are emerging in interviews with people who witnessed, and in some case, participated in the events.
The tale of Hadid's ascent to deputy commander of al-Zarqawi's group is now the stuff of legend in filthy camps for displaced residents, in the village homes of his tribesmen and even in an upscale restaurant in Baghdad where the mufti met with a reporter.
The story underscores that while Iraqi insurgents may draw inspiration from foreign radicals, their leadership is largely homegrown, with deep roots in local traditions.
From an early age, Hadid, a tall, stocky man whose smile reveals chipped teeth, was known as a Salafi, the follower of a puritan Islam who stood out even in conservative Fallujah, known as Iraq's City of Mosques.
Long before American forces became his target, Hadid took potshots at Saddam's secular government—unthinkable acts for most Iraqis, but especially brazen for Sunnis who often benefited from Saddam's patronage.
As a teenager, Hadid picked fights and "made people uneasy," said his uncle, Abu Mohamed Hadid, who lives in the family's tribal lands on the outskirts of Fallujah. His first outlaw act was shooting a policeman in the leg—a scandal that was settled in tribal courts with Hadid's family paying compensation to the officer, the uncle said.
The 1991 Gulf War ushered in a new religious conservatism in Iraq, and Hadid was excited about the shift from secular Arab nationalism. He found a mentor in a fellow Iraqi dissident named Mohammed al-Issawi who reportedly had fought the Russian government alongside Muslim Chechen rebels.
Together Hadid and al-Issawi campaigned against "sins" they saw in their city, threatening owners of beauty parlors and music stores. In the mid-1990s, Hadid terrified townspeople by blowing up Fallujah's only cinema, the mufti recalled with pride. It never reopened.
Baath Party security forces eventually stormed al-Issawi's house and killed him. As the story goes, a dying al-Issawi vowed revenge in a message written on the wall in his own blood. Hadid, then in his 20s, decided he would be the avenger.
"That day was the seed of everything going on with Omar today," said Lt. Col. Yasser Aftan, a former Fallujah police officer who participated in the raid on al-Issawi's home.
In retaliation for his friend's death, Hadid allegedly helped murder a senior official of Saddam's Baath party in Fallujah, then disappeared. Saddam's government tried him in absentia and sentenced him to death by hanging.
By then, however, Hadid had fled to northern Iraq, where Kurdish rebels associated with the militant group Ansar al Islam had reportedly granted him refuge, according to Hadid's family and friends.
Some of Hadid's associates said he next slipped into Syria and, later, Saudi Arabia. But the most oft-repeated account is that he was simply absorbed into a community of farmers and shepherds in the town of Qaim on the Syrian border.
"Omar doesn't talk about those years a lot," his uncle said. "I'm not even sure where he went. But I'd say there's a 90 percent chance he ended up in Afghanistan."
Hadid quietly returned to Fallujah after the fall of Saddam's regime in April 2003. He rented a modest house, opened an electrician's stand in a busy marketplace and resumed his pious life inside the city's many mosques.
The unpredictable upstart had turned into a mature man with an imposing presence and a gift for public speaking, people recall.
"He was convincing and persuasive. We couldn't believe it was him," said Abu Yasser Ahmed, a neighbor and distant relative of Hadid. "His manner was calmer and his knowledge of the religion had broadened. Before, it was hard to understand him. Now, he's very clear."
When the men of Fallujah decided to take up arms against U.S. forces, Hadid quickly assembled a small army. They started modestly, rebels said, firing rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. convoys and perfecting their crude, homemade bombs, but grew to heroic status after U.S. troops broke off efforts to occupy Fallujah last April.
Hadid, who had served on the front lines, became a local icon. His name was spray-painted on walls and recruits lined up to join the fight, several Fallujah residents said.
"He was just an electrician who fixed cables in your house for a dollar, and now he's a strong fighter," said Makki Nazal, a prominent Fallujah resident who participated in peace negotiations. "He's a terrorist to the Americans, a freedom fighter to the Iraqis."
Around that same time, Hadid became friendly with al-Zarqawi, whose Tawhid and Jihad, or Unity and Holy War, group was made up largely of foreigners. Hadid took command of a Tawhid and Jihad offshoot of about 1,500 men known as the Black Banners Brigade.
Hadid also provided an important service to al-Zarqawi, friends and rebel sources said: He protected him from being thrown out by the locals or being turned in for the $25 million U.S. officials had offered for his capture.
"He's a mujahid, a holy warrior," said Salman al Jumaili, a Fallujah native and insurgent expert at Baghdad University. "It didn't matter that his views were more extremist than most of the fighters in Fallujah. It didn't matter that he was just an electrician. The most important thing was that he's from the tribe of Mahamdeh and he's a son of the city."
In the wake of the U.S. decision in April to break off its attacks in Fallujah, Hadid and other guerrilla leaders decided to form a united front to govern the city. The resulting body was the Mujahedeen Shura, an 18-member council made up of Islamist, nationalist and former Baathist rebels in Fallujah.
"Until then, the resistance had no shape, no organization, no sophistication," said the mufti, who provided religious decrees, or fatwas, to support the council's decisions. "April made it clear who was coming out to fight, so we all met one another and made an agreement. Each cell took a territory to protect."
Hadid assumed control of Jolan, known as the most dangerous district in Fallujah.
Locals said they recognized him manning checkpoints and praying at popular mosques. And though tied to al-Zarqawi, whose Tawhid and Jihad group conducted a campaign of beheadings and large-scale bombings, Hadid was known as more merciful than his foreign comrades.
In one instance, recalled in separate interviews by two rebel sources, Hadid intervened to prevent the execution of a captured national guardsman after the guardsman's weeping mother pleaded for his release.
"I asked Omar once how he could bear to do it, how he could hold himself together when he slaughtered another human being," said one of Hadid's cousins, a 28-year-old man who gave his name only as Abu Nour. "He laughed and swore he'd never personally beheaded a hostage. He said he chose men who don't have hearts to do the actual killing. He said it's a battle, so everything is permissible."
It is unclear what happened to Hadid when U.S. troops entered Fallujah. Hadid's family and close rebel associates say Hadid survived the U.S. assault and is hiding in another town, still alive, still fighting, and still in charge. Some U.S. officials have speculated that he was killed, but they offer no hard evidence.
"I told Omar, `Why don't you take all the fighters outside Fallujah and just let the Americans enter for a while?' Fallujah is not Mecca," said Hadid's uncle, referring to the holiest city in Islam. "Omar's answer was no, we will fight to the end."
The uncle said Hadid's arm was seriously injured in an airstrike that destroyed his headquarters and killed about 35 militants, including Hadid's brother. Then, last week, a Lebanese television station aired footage of four hooded insurgents who said they were speaking from Fallujah. One of them claimed to be Hadid.
The mufti was cryptic about his friend's latest whereabouts. He sat at a table in an empty Baghdad restaurant, wrinkling his nose at the provocative music lyrics blaring from speakers. He stroked a perfectly trimmed bear and chose his words carefully.
"Omar was in Fallujah," he finally said.
When a reporter pointed out that he had used the past tense, the mufti simply smiled.
(A Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent contributed from Fallujah and nearby villages. He is not named for security reasons.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.