He was scarcely 4ft tall and when he removed the scarf masking his face I saw that his cheeks were smooth. He had beautiful brown eyes and a lovely smile.
As American gunships fired into Falluja one night last week, shaking the floor beneath our feet, this pretty 12-year-old boy described how he had tricked and killed an American sniper in the battle for the city.
“I kept on firing until I saw smoke coming out of his body,” said Saad, his voice a piping treble.
Boys grow up fast among the tough tribes of the Sunni triangle, west of Baghdad. Saad’s 13-year-old brother was a married father when he was killed in the battle for Falluja. Saad was hit in the leg by a bullet on the first day.
The incident of the sniper has become an instant local legend. It began when the boy noticed a unit of Iraqi fighters pinned down in the north of the city. Hiding his AK-47 behind his back, he defied orders to keep away and walked towards the building the sniper was shooting from.
“I knew the soldier would think I was only a child and would not fire at me,” he said.
He was right. As he approached the American position, the sniper turned away. The boy promptly knelt in the road, lifted his Kalashnikov and killed him.
The incident has given Saad an authority beyond his years. “I advise Bush to withdraw his troops from Falluja and Iraq if he does not want our country to be their graveyard,” he pronounced, raising himself to his full 4ft.
However youthful, Saad embodied the problem the US marines faced in Falluja. On the edge of Iraq’s western desert, this arid city of squat, sand-coloured buildings has long been one of the most important centres of Sunni Islam in the region. It is known as the city of mosques — there are more than 200.
On April 28 last year the first bloody post-war confrontation occurred here when American troops fired at demonstrators, killing 13. A year later the city resisted fanatically when the marines arrived to punish it for the murder and mutilation of four American contract workers.
Yesterday, however, the Americans appeared to accept that the answer to the revolt lay not in firepower but in compromise. People came out of their homes to celebrate as the marines pulled back and Iraqis under the command of Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a former general from one of Falluja’s tribes, moved in.
American drones and warplanes continued to fly overhead, and American troops remained in control of areas north and east of the city, but they had withdrawn from the west and the south.
Crowds of fighters and civilians drove in cars waving the old Iraqi flag in victory and firing celebratory shots in the air as mosques blared songs of victory through loudspeakers. People said they were in favour of Saleh’s appointment because he was selected by the local sheikhs and not imposed by the Americans.
Is this a turning point in the wider conflict for Iraq? My tour of Falluja provided startling insights into the degree of resistance there and showed that the siege was not only causing civilian suffering but also proving counterproductive for the Americans.
When I had arrived in Falluja on Tuesday I found that what had once been a bustling city of 300,000 lay still and silent but for the hum of drones and warplanes. Neighbourhood after neighbourhood seemed empty. The busy markets, street vendors, beggars, black-clad women and playing children had disappeared.
Those who remained were fighters. They called themselves mujaheddin and came from all walks of life: a first-year medical student, a car mechanic, a pharmacist, a trader, a teacher and many sheikhs. They spoke of fighting to the end and exchanged stories of successes against the marines. Religion and fantasy interacted together.
Giant scorpions, 50cm long, were said to be attacking the Americans. Internet photographs of these monsters were handed around. “God has sent us his warrior angels in the form of these scorpions,” I was told.
An account of the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad was repeated. To chants of “God is wondrous”, the story was told of how the prophet scolded a man for leaving Falluja when he himself was fighting alongside the mujaheddin.
Names of “collaborators and spies” were exchanged. There was talk of “mercenary Kurds” accused of being Mossad agents fighting alongside the marines. A handful had confessed under interrogation, I was told, and had been summarily killed. Some had been shot; others had had their throats cut.
A tall, skinny sheikh with piercing eyes agreed to escort us to the Golan district. He identified himself as a senior commander of the resistance.
Slowly we drove in silence through the empty streets. Armed men emerged to greet the sheikh and his guests and we were led into a house where a dozen fighters were sharing lunch. They squatted in a circle around two large aluminium trays of rice and meat and dug in with their hands, the traditional Iraqi style of eating. Tea was served and the men were ready to go back to their positions.
For the next few hours I was given a tour of the shattered neighbourhood. I was told to walk against the walls and fences to avoid sniper fire. The stench of death drifted from some of the alleyways.
Garbage littered streets that were scattered with leaflets dropped by American warplanes warning the resistance to give up or face death.
Rabii Saleh Dahi, 31, wobbled up on a battered bicycle. He said he had lost at least 27 members of his family in one attack. His uncles, aunts and cousins had moved into his grandparents’ house for safety, only to be hit by two bombs from an F16. His younger brother had disappeared: “We do not know where he is or where he has gone, only that he seemed to have lost his mind.”
According to the resistance, 586 people died in the first week of fighting and the toll had since risen to about 1,100. The figures were collated from doctors and local leaders and may be an overestimate because of double counting and unsubstantiated reports.
Falluja’s football stadium had been turned into a makeshift cemetery. Names were painted on pieces of cardboard or tin if the body had been identified.
Near Falluja’s front line I heard female voices behind a metal door. I knocked and was greeted by a large woman and a beautiful young girl in a courtyard washing pans. The woman, Rabiaa Ali, said: “The entire neighbourhood walked away, but we could not.”
With no car, little money and a sick husband, she had decided to stay with her daughter Naheda. They had been living on rice and sugar with no electricity for days.
We stopped at a makeshift first aid clinic in a mosque. In charge was Maki al-Nazzal, an English-speaking former employee of Intersos, an Italian agency. He spoke with bitterness of the women and children who had filled his ward and complained angrily about US tactics: “By killing women and children they are hardening the people of Falluja and turning them more against them (the Americans).” He said that despite the apparent emptiness of the city many families were trapped in their homes. After long negotiations with the Americans, he had won permission to send a doctor out to help with medicine and food.
Sheikh Thafer al Ubaidi, the godfather of Falluja’s resistance, also spoke to me. The sheikh, known for his fierce sermons, argued that American “blunders” had turned Falluja into a centre of resistance. It was a town of large tribes who rejected the presence of uninvited foreigners. Searches for Saddam loyalists offended the conservative traditions of the area, he said. Soldiers stormed houses at night, searched unveiled women and humiliated men in front of their wives and children.
Thafer said all the tribal leaders and religious figures condemned the mutilation of the four Americans whose deaths triggered the fighting. Like other figures in the city, however, he did not condemn the actual killings. Many people I spoke to claimed the men had been mercenaries.
Thafer insisted that he had detested Saddam Hussein as as a “hateful criminal”. But he quoted from an old poem: “I cursed a life destroyed under a lifetime and when I mingled with my new friends I found myself crying for my cursed and lost lifetime.” In other words, he found the present even worse than the past.
I had my own brush with American air power while interviewing Saad, the boy sniper, with Ali Rifaat, the Sunday Times correspondent in Baghdad. His car came under fire 200 yards away, apparently from a gunship. The navy blue 1993 Buick Roadmaster was hit twice and burst into flames. Neither of us was hurt, but a local commander was hit by shrapnel.
Yesterday, after the Americans withdrew, ambulances visited frontline areas to bring out bodies that could not be buried during the siege.
The father of one-year-old Asmaa Almwan said angrily that snipers on his roof in the al-Askari district had refused to let him out of the house when she fell ill. When she died they had refused to let him bury her. That was 16 days ago. “I had to put her in the garage,” he said.
Yesterday the small parcel wrapped in white cloth was taken to the stadium cemetery for a hurried burial, as her father wept with rage.