Under the Saddam Hussein regime, "Ahmed" was an insider, a commando who served in the feared Fedayeen Saddam militia. Now he's a guerrilla battling the American occupiers who rule his homeland. He spends his days plotting new ways to kill U.S. soldiers and his nights carrying out those deadly raids. His base is Fallujah, the town 30 miles west of Baghdad that has become the epicenter of the insurgency. Ahmed, 40, who won't allow his real name to be published for fear of leading the Americans to him, looks more like a simple farmer than a killer: deeply etched lines radiate from the corners of his eyes, and his face is anchored by a stubbly salt-and-pepper beard. But his intentions are lethal. "If you come like a friend, we will say, 'Welcome,' and help you," he says. "But if you come like the Americans did to control us, then we will kill you."
American Staff Sergeant Richard Bear is in Iraq to stop men like Ahmed. It was a desire to do something significant with his life and gain notice that put him on the path that would eventually lead him to Fallujah. "Right after the first Gulf War," he recalls, "I was driving back from my job at Wal-Mart when I saw a busful of reservists returning home. People were clapping and cheering and honking their horns. These guys were heroes. I thought to myself, That's what I want--recognition, a sense of accomplishment." And so he enlisted. Trained as a paratrooper, Bear served in Afghanistan last year and arrived in Iraq two months ago with Charlie Company of the 1-505 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. "Nobody has delusions of grandeur that we're going to be the ones to catch Saddam Hussein," says Bear, 33, sitting in his makeshift sleeping quarters at the battalion's base--a former Baath Party resort named Dreamland, just outside Fallujah. "We're just here to do our little bit in our little patch of Iraq."
The two men--an Iraqi insurgent and an American soldier--have more in common than one might expect. Both are fathers who care deeply about their children and their country. Both see their jobs as their duty. Both pray each time they head out on a new mission. "They have their way of fighting, and we have our way of fighting," says Ahmed, who fingers amber-colored prayer beads as he talks. "Everyone wants to defend his country and his honor." Says Bear: "I want my wife and family to be proud of me because what I am doing is protecting them."
Ahmed began organizing with other insurgents soon after the fall of Baghdad. They gathered weapons from pre-existing caches, many of which still litter the country unguarded. They formed small cells that mostly act independently but sometimes coordinate operations, communicating through messengers. Lately, Ahmed says, these units have begun to work with foreign fighters who have infiltrated Iraq to confront the Americans. He says his group welcomes "anybody who embraces the language of the Koran." Hiding is easy, Ahmed contends: "I am in my country. Every door to every house is open to me."