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Resentment of Americans Runs Deep in Fallouja

After a confrontation that left 15 residents dead, there is seething anger toward U.S. troops in the Iraqi Sunni Muslim town.

May 03, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — Saddam Hussein never had to worry about the loyalties of this prosperous trading town on the banks of the Euphrates River.

The people of Fallouja were Sunni Muslims, tribal and insular -- much like Hussein himself. Some didn't like the former president, but they weren't particularly oppressed by him.

From the townspeople's viewpoint, the same cannot be said of the U.S. soldiers involved in an ugly confrontation this week that left 15 locals dead.

"God, please curse the Americans for what they have done to us," said one of the imams preaching at the Ali ibn Abi Talib mosque during Friday prayers.

U.S. troops patrol in heavily armored vehicles, helicopters fly overhead and scores of soldiers have taken up residence in a former Baath Party headquarters near the entrance to this town about 35 miles west of Baghdad. It is a less controversial spot than the school where they first camped, but still an overt, constant reminder of the U.S. presence.

Although the hair-trigger mood that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the shootings seemed to have subsided, people still seethed with anger Friday, suggesting that there would be trouble if the Americans try to retain a presence here.

Conversations with Fallouja residents expose a litany of differences -- cultural, practical and political -- that divide the Americans and the people who have lived here for generations.

The primary problem in this city of 200,000 is simply the Americans' presence, which many find insulting. "It's been a long time since the people of Fallouja have seen invading troops," said Taha Alwan, the mayor. "Just the sight of them makes the people feel furious."

For the moment, the imams and tribal leaders have decided to keep tensions in check, telling worshipers to hold their fire -- but only temporarily and only, it seems, for a practical reason: They cannot win.

"There is no need to fight the Americans for the time being because we do not have enough weapons to face them and we don't need to repeat what happened three days ago," said Sheik Abdullah Hussein, who is in charge of the mosque where the memorial service was held.

But in the end, only one thing seems certain to appease the people of Fallouja. "America should put away their weapons and go home," Hussein said.

The reasons are a mixture of perception and reality. It is true that from the standpoint of people here, who were not clamoring for the regime's ouster, the war brought problems unknown before: a lack of electricity, looting and the loss of jobs. The city had several government-owned factories nearby; none of them are operating now. Government jobs such as teaching and working in hospitals have become unpaid labor.

Exacerbating matters is the U.S. soldiers' routine use of binoculars and night-vision equipment, which infuriated the clannish townspeople. They felt violated and said the soldiers were watching their women -- almost impossible because women here are rarely allowed out of the house and windows are heavily barred and often curtained.

"They wore shorts that were very short. Our shorts go to the knee -- here we have families," said Marwan Nuaimi, who has been demonstrating outside the Americans' Fallouja headquarters. "And they were looking through the binoculars at our women," he added.

Women in Fallouja, much as in rural Afghanistan, live cloistered existences. They never go out of the house unless accompanied by a male relative, and then only to visit family members. Men do the shopping.

Before the war, not much happened here that was unexpected, and though some may not have been entirely satisfied, they had a sense of stability.

"When Saddam was here, no one shot a single bullet into the air," said Salayman Hirtawi, a 64-year-old resident, who added that since the war ended there have been revenge killings and robberies. "He was a great, strong man," he said wistfully.

Hirtawi has a more personal reason for resenting the Americans. His 30-year-old son was sent to fight them two months ago and has not returned.

"We miss having safety, security and jobs," Abid Hadi Kubaisi, a soft-spoken silk cloth dealer, said as he stood a short distance from the U.S. encampment. "The Americans have made many promises, but they have broken them.

"We wish Saddam were still in power."

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