We parked in front of another house. The gunmen led us inside, and I looked around in surprise. Our luxurious new detention facility had high ceilings decorated with plaster moldings of ferns and daisies, layers of russet-and-blue Persian carpets, a stereo and television, a cupboard display of porcelain tea sets. It was a comfortable, tasteful place that bespoke it's owner's affluence – a Middle Eastern version of a suburban home in Santa Monica or Larchmont. Whoever owned this house was clearly a member of Falluja's upper middle class: a businessman, maybe a former military officer.
We were invited to sit on the carpet, and Mohammed sat down across from us. Stubble Face, who now introduced himself as Mohammed's brother, lifted up his shirt to reveal a thick white belt – packed, he said, with explosives. He pulled playfully at two triggers dangling from the belt. "Irhabi," he said. Terrorist. Then he disappeared into a backroom, leaving us with his brother. What now?
I tried to start a conversation with Mohammed, careful not to step out of bounds. I knew I had an opportunity to get some great insight into the resistance, maybe even establish a rapport, but I also knew that pushing too far could get us killed.
Slowly, tentatively, he began to talk about his life. Twenty-three years old, from a well-to-do Jolan family, he had been studying French at Baghdad University when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. (By coincidence, Samir had also studied French in Baghdad, and the two of them launched into a brief, surreal conversation about Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and French instructors they had shared.) Mohammed told us that he had supported Saddam's overthrow but that "the Americans should have left immediately afterward." He said he had picked up his Kalashnikov after Sheikh Dhafer al-Obeidi – one of a half-dozen influential clerics in Falluja who have some authority over the Iraqi insurgents – put out a call to arms from the city's mosques in early April. Getting by on "bread and Pepsi" for days on end, he had fought the marines from rooftops and alleys. "How would you feel if French, Germans, Arabs invaded New York?" he asked me. "Would you sit there and do nothing?"
As Mohammed opened up, I switched fully back into journalist mode. I probed him for more details about his weeks fighting the marines. Would he mind, I asked, if we took a few pictures of him and his brother – they could wear masks to disguise their appearance – for the article we were working on? King looked at me in disbelief; he hadn't yet managed the transition back to work mode. Mohammed politely said no.
Then, after a meal of hummus, kebab, pita bread, yogurt, and sweetened tea, the illusion of normality faded. The young guerrilla grew somber. He reached behind his back and pulled a semiautomatic pistol from his belt. He stared at the floor. "I am filled with grief," he muttered. He began to fidget with the gun, sliding it across the carpet, barrel pointing at King. Releasing the magazine, he slapped it back into the gun with a menacing click. King and I looked at each other. "My mother was killed by an American sniper," Mohammed said, his eyes unfocused. "My brother was shot by an American sniper." I swallowed hard. Click, click. Put away the gun. Please, just put away the gun. "The Americans are beasts," Mohammed said. Fifteen minutes passed. Abruptly, Mohammed placed the gun back in his belt and stood up. "Now we will visit the sheikh," he said.
Stubble Face ushered us all out the door and back into the BMW, and a few minutes later we pulled up beside yet another house. We were led inside to meet Sheikh Dhafer. Draped in a white dishdasha, with a white skullcap on his head, the sheikh had a gray-flecked beard, a kindly face, and an air of quiet authority. Six other Falluja elders sat on plastic chairs arranged in a semicircle around him.
One man in his sixties, whose crisp gray business suit and neatly coiffed appearance set him apart from the others, motioned for us to sit beside him on a blue sofa. He turned out to be a fluent English speaker, and he served as Dhafer's interpreter. "You must understand the situation here," Dhafer explained. "There are infiltrators who want to destroy the ceasefire we have achieved with the U.S. Marines. I have given orders to our young men to detain and interrogate every foreigner who enters the city without permission." While Dhafer left the room briefly to take a telephone call, the well-dressed gentleman leaned toward me and whispered, "I heard that two Americans had been kidnapped, so I rushed here to negotiate for your release." He paused for a moment, then leaned even closer. "I am General Abdul-Latif." I couldn't believe it: Abdul-Latif, I knew, was a former Ba'athist army officer who had fled to exile in London and returned to Iraq after the U.S. invasion. He had been a key negotiator between the marines and the Falluja insurgents and was now commander of the Falluja Brigade – the 1,500-man force that had replaced the Americans on the streets. Dhafer returned to the room, smiling warmly. We were now free to leave Falluja, he said, but first he wanted to invite us to take photographs of the destruction in Jolan.
We shook hands with everyone, then Stubble Face drove us a few blocks to a minaret that had been destroyed by U.S. missiles. His brother Mohammed joined us, along with Samir, our interpreter. Inside the car Mohammed treated me like an old friend, chatting in Arabic, patting my shoulder reassuringly, all traces of his brooding, volatile side gone. You've fucking done it, Hammer, I congratulated myself. It's over. You found your way out of another cul-de-sac.
At the mosque, King snapped pictures while I wandered through the debris with Mohammed at my side. We were bonding now: I murmured in sympathy as the fighter condemned the "desecration." I was scribbling notes furiously, back in correspondent mode. An energizing sense of well-being washed over me, almost like a cocaine rush. It was similar to the way I had felt after being released by the Fatah kidnappers in Gaza three years before.
That day, British photographer Gary Knight and I had gone to Rafah, the epicenter of the Palestinian resistance. Eight black-masked fighters had taken us captive at gunpoint, seized our mobile phones and cameras, and imprisoned us in a stuffy little room. At first I was terrified, but then the leader assured us that we would be held for only four or five hours, a symbolic kidnapping to protest U.S. and British policy in the Middle East. Once CNN received the group's press release and reported our kidnapping on international television, the mujahideen served lunch, then freed us, with handshakes and apologies all around.
Now, as I looked around the ruined mosque, I could hardly believe my good fortune that this day was turning out so much like that one. But in the back of my mind a nagging thought was taking root: It almost seems too easy.