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A Peacemaker Runs the Gantlet in Fallouja

Times Staff Writer

Hachim Hassani engages in shuttle diplomacy, Iraq-style.

Here’s what that means: Hop into a Toyota Land Cruiser and speed toward the besieged city of Fallouja, hoping that the U.S. Marines don’t shoot you as you head toward their positions, and that the rocket and mortar fire from insurgents doesn’t get you either.

Then spend eight hours in a mosque full of angry city elders as American bombs thunder outside. Dodge assassination attempts on the road back to Baghdad, stopping on the way to pick up a woman who has been shot by a sniper.

Hassani is a businessman, a former Angeleno, an acting Iraqi Governing Council member and the last link between the U.S.-led coalition and the people of Fallouja, who have long been a thorn in the coalition’s side and have become a national symbol of resistance to the occupation.

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During several days of freelance negotiations this week, Hassani, a leader of the once-outlawed Iraqi Islamic Party, brokered a shaky truce between militants and the U.S. forces that have encircled the city of 300,000 in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle.

“I’m still hoping the sound of wisdom is louder than the sound of guns,” said Hassani, 50. But he said that he still owned a home in Culver City in case the situation in his native country continued to deteriorate.

He and other members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Muslim group, are pessimistic. Doctors in Fallouja say more than 600 Iraqis have been killed since Marines went into the city to find those responsible for the killing and mutilation of four American civilian contractors late last month.

The offensive has enraged a wide cross-section of the populace and may be contributing to a more aggressive insurgency across the Sunni Triangle region outside Baghdad.

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U.S. generals said Thursday that they were also growing impatient and complained that their troops -- who have suffered at least 32 deaths in Fallouja and the surrounding area during the fighting -- continued to be fired on.

“I’m still very scared that I will wake up tomorrow and find the Marines in the city,” Hassani said. “That scares me, not because of what happens in Fallouja, but because it will spread to other areas.”

In his harrowing commutes, Hassani must traverse Iraq’s Highway 10, which runs west from Baghdad through the prison town of Abu Ghraib and into Fallouja. Once a vital supply route for U.S. troops, the road is now dotted with the burned wrecks of American trucks and with mobile checkpoints erected by roving bands of insurgents.

Hassani decided to take a leadership role in brokering a cease-fire because the Iraqi Islamic Party is the lone group on the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council to have strong political and familial ties to the tribes and Sunni Muslim religious leaders in the Fallouja area.

It was the Sunnis who benefited under the regime of Saddam Hussein and have staged most of the attacks on the coalition.

Not everyone in Fallouja was willing to take up arms against the Americans during the last year. But many Falloujans, observers and negotiators say that has changed recent days.

“Before this, if there were 200 people who hated the Americans, now there are thousands,” said Kais Azzawi, a political analyst and editor of the Baghdad-based newspaper Al Jariba.

That is why Hassani says the United States must step cautiously as it tries to pacify the city.

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“I’m trying to help find a solution for Americans, too,” Hassani said.

Hassani seems tailor-made for his role as peace broker.

Born into a prominent family in the northern city of Mosul, Hassani left Iraq in 1979, as Hussein prepared to launch his war against Iran. Hassani enrolled in graduate school at the University of Connecticut, earning a doctorate in economics.

He also became a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party. The party was founded in 1960 in Iraq but was quickly banned in the secular nation.

Hassani says the party seeks to apply Islamic principles to national government but not strict Islamic law. Until last year, it was one of a number of underground, exiled political parties struggling to topple Hussein.

A mild-mannered, hefty man who wears a jacket and tie, Hassani is comfortable sitting on the floor and digging into Iraqi stew with his hands, or conversing in fluent English about the NCAA Final Four. (He’s a fan of the Connecticut Huskies, this year’s college basketball champions.)

Hassani moved to the Los Angeles area in 1992 to start an Internet business. He bought a house in Claremont and started a family. But he kept dreaming of returning to Iraq, and began shuttling to London and cities in the Middle East for an unceasing series of meetings and negotiations on how to overthrow Hussein.

Hassani still regrets that he and his compatriots were unable to pull it off on their own. “That would have saved us a lot of lives and been much better,” he said.

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After U.S. troops toppled Hussein’s statue in downtown Baghdad a year ago, Hassani returned to Iraq with other members of the Iraqi Islamic Party. His wife and three young children followed and have settled with him in Baghdad.

Offices of the political party sprouted up across the country and the party was given a seat on the Governing Council. As deputy to the party secretary, Hassani has occupied that seat recently.

The party made few headlines before the gruesome March 31 killings of the four American workers in Fallouja. Hassani’s party, like many represented on the Governing Council, issued a statement condemning the attack.

Its involvement deepened after Marines went into Fallouja on April 5 and encountered mortar, rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

The Marines, who fought back with helicopter gunships and laser-guided bombs, say they have run a careful and “precise” operation.

But Iraqi Islamic Party officials, who have set up a hospital in their Fallouja office and toured other casualty wards, agree with the estimated toll of more than 600 dead as of early this week.

Of those, they said, 157 were women and 46 were children younger than 5. There may never be an accurate count. With the Marines dug in around the city cemetery, the dead are being buried in yards and soccer fields.

Hassani and other members of the Governing Council urged the Americans to pull back. After four days, the military announced it was suspending offensive operations. But insurgents kept firing at the Marines and after a short lull, the Americans were back on the attack.

The next day, Saturday, Hassani, three aides and a deputy to another Governing Council member, Ghazi Ajil Yawer, drove in three vehicles to the city in hopes of brokering a lasting cease-fire.

As they neared a Marine checkpoint outside town, a tank in front of them burst into flames. Mortar rounds thudded around them. Inside the city, the streets were deserted. Residents thought the white sport utility vehicles of Hassani’s group were being driven by Americans and whispered about how easy it would be to kill them.

The delegation said it met at a mosque crowded with local notables. Members of the delegation had family and religious ties to the town, but they said it took some time to quiet people down and for the city leaders to pick 12 representatives to talk directly to them.

Even then, not everyone in town was happy with the idea of negotiating.

“The majority were accepting of what we were trying to do, but a minority were controlled by their passions,” said Ayad Izzi, the Iraqi Islamic Party’s political director and a member of the delegation. “They said they had made great sacrifices and they would never accept a cease-fire.”

The city leaders had immediate demands -- that the Marines pull back and release all Falloujans detained over the last year and stop conducting house-to-house searches. But Hassani refused to get into specifics until the leaders agreed to try to quiet down the town.

The delegation later sped out of the city, stopping to pick up a wounded female pedestrian who delegation members believe was shot by a Marine sniper.

On the road back to Baghdad, Izzi spotted a friend and pulled over. The man glowered and asked how Izzi could work for the Governing Council.

“We’re not representing the GC,” Izzi replied, saying he was representing the interests only of his own political party. “Who told you that?”

The man’s demeanor changed; he acknowledged that he had been assigned as a scout to lure the convoy into a roadside ambush. The convoy left the highway and took rural roads back to Baghdad.

There, Hassani met with L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, and top U.S. military commanders and sold them on a Fallouja cease-fire. The next day, the U.S. military announced it was looking for a “political track” to solve the crisis.

Over the next three days, Hassani kept up the hazardous commute to Fallouja. Some insurgents continued to fire on the Marines, but the town grew quieter. Children began to play in the streets again in some neighborhoods.

On Tuesday night, Hassani brought a delegation of Falloujans that included the hospital director and the mayor to meet with U.S. military commanders in Baghdad. The meeting ran eight hours. Returning to Fallouja, the delegation was held up for four hours Wednesday afternoon at a Marine checkpoint outside town. Insurgent fire grew heavier, and the U.S. resumed targeted airstrikes.

On Thursday, insurgents fired rockets at a hospital near Marine positions and continued to fire at U.S. troops. American commanders warned that the continuing hostilities threatened to undermine the truce.

Hassani, while acknowledging that some insurgents were not honoring the cease-fire, also worried that the American position on Fallouja seemed to be changing. “The goal of this operation was to get the thugs who killed the four contractors and also those who mutilated the bodies,” Hassani said.

But now, he said, generals were demanding the hand-over of any foreign fighters who may have infiltrated Fallouja, as well as anyone who had been firing on U.S. troops in the last week.

“When you enlarge the scope of your operation like this,” he said, “it gets very dangerous.”

Special correspondent Hameed Suleibi in Fallouja contributed to this report.


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