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Fighter gives an inside look at resistance

TIKRIT, Iraq -- The attacks against American soldiers often begin like this: A taxi stops on a street corner of this town. Then the driver passes whispered messages with code names for locations and times before whizzing off down the road.

"We have special ways to send orders, with passwords that some taxi drivers know," said Omar Saleh, a 22-year-old fighter in a clandestine group called Mohammed's Army. The guerrilla group formed last May in this stronghold of Saddam Hussein, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.

"The driver meets me in the street and tells me where to go and at what time," said Saleh -- a guerrilla name he has chosen in order to conceal his identity.

After six months of the US-led occupation, fighters waging this low-intensity war received a fresh supply of weapons in early October, according to Saleh, who did not know from where the shipment had come. The arsenal included valuable new items that expanded the fighters' range and choice of targets.

New 160mm mortars allow Tikrit's fighters to strike military targets from a longer distance than in previous months, he said. And antitank landmines offered more possibilities. The US Army lost its first armored tank in Iraq last Tuesday, when an Abrams tank hit a mine on a road near Balad, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, killing two soldiers from the Fourth Infantry Division. Until now, Iraq's fighters appeared unable to pierce American armor.

Yesterday's Chinook attack appeared to come from a surface-to-air missile, of which Hussein was thought to have possessed hundreds, or perhaps thousands, when his army collapsed on April 9. Saleh said his group had not fired those missiles, but said he believed they were in plentiful supply. "We have everything," he said. "Each group has its own store of weapons, and they are responsible for keeping their own weapons cache. We have huge numbers of weapons."

Given the secret nature of Iraq's resistance groups, Saleh's account of Tikrit's insurgents cannot be confirmed independently. He spoke to a Globe reporter after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance, a former officer in the elite Republican Guard and a native of Tikrit whom he had known for many years. Arranging to meet on a sidewalk of this city of 75,000 people, Saleh spoke in a reporter's moving car, the only place in Tikrit that he believed was now safe enough to discuss the ongoing war against US troops.

Saleh was intensely nervous, eyes darting to ensure that he was not noticed. He insisted that the reporter wear an Arabic headdress and floor-length abaya to hide that he was meeting with a Western woman.

Tikrit, the headquarters for the Fourth Infantry Division, has seen almost daily attacks on American soldiers for months. In an intensification of the scrutiny US troops are giving the area, the city's southern suburb of Owja was cordoned off Friday night, and US soldiers introduced identity cards for all of its 3,000 residents.

Saleh said his contact ordered two attacks during the past week alone. The first came last Sunday, when Saleh and three others were told to meet after midnight to attack a military base outside town with hand grenades and mortars. "We could hear the soldiers scream," he said. The second attack came last Wednesday, when Saleh and nine others converged on another base and lobbed mortars over the wall. From a distance, Saleh was not certain what they had hit.

American troops stormed north from Baghdad and seized Tikrit, the last holdout, in April, finally ending Hussein's rule in his hometown. Saleh and his friends were left adrift. They had fought with Hussein's crack Fedayeen Saddam troops since they were teenagers, and had been assigned combat duties in the war. With no job and an intense distaste for the Americans occupying Tikrit, Saleh, a stockily built man in a well-ironed checked shirt and black trousers, signed up for battle weeks later.

Also knitted into the underground web of fighters are about 75 foreigners, mostly Syrians, said Saleh. "They have been here for months," he said, and were dispersed among groups of fighters. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that US forces have captured "between 200 and 300" foreign insurgents, "and we've killed a number of others."

US military officials say they believe the mounting daily attacks against American soldiers are organized regionally, with little sophisticated command and control structures.

More troubling for US officials, however, is that the insurgents appear to be better organized and armed than in previous months.

"It's getting worse in the sense that, as today, the enemies of freedom are using more sophisticated techniques," the US administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, told CNN's "Late Edition" yesterday.

"This was a new one," he said, referring to the twin-propeller Chinook helicopter that was shot down near Fallujah yesterday. "There is a much more sophisticated use of improvised explosive devices -- stand-off weapons."

Saleh described both aspects of the attacks: a loose-knit command structure, but one that is improving its skills and accuracy.

He said about 600 volunteers, including the foreigners, were based around Tikrit, organized in "divisions" of about 100 men, with a commander controlling each group. A sheik, who Saleh would not name but called "a religious man who believes in jihad," also issues orders, he said.

The fighters themselves are not religious, however, he said. Saleh did not describe the relationship between his group of 100 men and Mohammed's Army. He did say there were no foreigners in his group, most of whom are former Fedayeen like himself. "We all know each other from before," Saleh said. "This is not religious. It is also not in order to support Saddam," he said.

Rather, the fighters are provoked by thepresence of US troops. "The purpose of fighting them is to get them to leave the cities," said Saleh. "They arrived as liberators and turned into occupiers."

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