A Firefight, and Its Aftermath

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Rawah is an small community of a few thousand farmers and traders in the Iraqi desert hard on the Syrian border about 180 miles northwest of Baghdad. Today its small cemetery has about sixty new bodies buried in graves so shallow the rotten stench of corpses is carried by the wind. These are the remains of fighters that the U.S. believes were members of the military irregulars known as the fedayeen Saddam, camped near Rawah and killed by American troops in a deadly raid at 2 AM last Thursday.

Townspeople say the fighters arrived three days before, and set up camp six miles outside of Rawah in an area where an underground stream emerges from the barren desert to create a small oasis of tall green reeds against thirty-foot cliffs. All that remains is a mess of mattresses, sneakers, clothing, magazines, books, razors, combs, cups, cooking gas cylinders, a deflated soccer ball and medical supplies. The walls of the cliff are baked white from explosions. A flatbed truck is charred at the end of the ledge. Several hasty graves marked with sticks are at the other end, the sour smell of death emerging. Caked blood and ashes are on the earth. Most of the clothing is black, the color worn by the fedayeen fighters.

Around a bend, through a narrow wadi are dozens of rocket propelled grenades and their launchers as well as Russian made hand held anti aircraft launchers, M60s, large caliber bullets and weapons from the Iraqi ministry of defense in crates with English writing that notes they contain plastic explosives imported from Basra. Most of the weapons appear to be live and undamaged, some of the RPGs are still wrapped. The walls are also baked white from where an explosion occurred that threw ammunition 100 feet away. The location looks like a hideout for the remaining fedayeen loyalists, foreign and Iraqi. The black clothing suggests they were fedayeen and the Iraqi ministry of defense crates suggest an official relationship with the Iraqi government.

Rawah has one restaurant and one mosque, called the mosque of the martyr Nasir Abdul Fatah. At prayer time Raghbi Abdel Aziz leads his congregation, after which they emerge to share the story of what they found at the camp when they discovered it. Sheikh Raghbi is an elderly man, with a short white beard, very thick glasses that enlarge his dark eyes, a white cap and a starched white robe. He maintains that the townspeople were not aware of the camp or at least of what exactly was going on: "Rawah is a border town, many people come and go and we cannot recognize them. The desert here connects with Syria and Kirkuk." He explains that some of the strangers would come to the Mosque for food and prayer, but they did not make problems for the townspeople.

The morning after the attack, he and his followers buried the dead. They found 57 men who they said had apparently been shot in their sleep. Another ten or so where so badly mutilated that their remains were buried at the camp. They claimed that seven of the dead had their hands tied behind their backs and their throats had been choked with a cord of some kind. And they confirmed that the men they had seen were not from the town.