Civilian death toll prompts tension in Fallujah
WITH the ease of a man now used to the spotlight, Ahmed Khalaf guided yet another TV crew round the missile craters in his dead brother Ali’s backyard. Shaking his head in bewilderment, he told how a potshot at suspected sheep rustlers in the middle of the night drew a terrible response.
"American soldiers came to the village one night last week, for no reason we know," he said. "We get thieves round here, so we called out in the dark, ‘Who is there?’ There was no answer, so we fired a few warning shots.
"The next thing, we were shot at, and then two F-16 jets came along and fired missiles into my brother’s home. Can you believe it?" he asked.
In last week’s clash in the farming village of al-Sajr, three adults died and two children were seriously injured, one of whom may now be paralysed.
The United States army’s 82nd Airborne Division says it called in the air strikes after coming under sustained fire, although they have yet to explain why such overwhelming firepower was necessary.
The most obvious answer lies along the rough desert road leading out of al-Sajr and on to Fallujah, the Sunni Muslim stronghold where, for nearly six months now, a campaign of violent guerrilla resistance has left American forces on a permanent war footing.
Two months ago, when The Scotsman last visited the town, things seemed to be calming down. Street policing was being handed to the Iraqis, influential tribal sheikhs had been won over, and a new, less aggressive US approach seemed to be paying public relations dividends.
"Blood money" was also paid to the families of 17 Iraqi civilians shot dead by Americans during a demonstration here in April.
But with grenade and rocket attacks still continuing, and new troops always learning the beat, coalition nerves have never stopped jangling.
The bombing of al-Sajr has not been the only example. On Saturday, soldiers manning a checkpoint killed four Iraqis and wounded two others. A fortnight ago, they shot dead eight Iraqi policemen as they chased a suspected robber.
The troops have justified their actions by saying they came under threat first, but to most locals, when troops err on the side of caution, it almost always seems to cost Iraqi lives.
The result? Fallujah is drifting back to the bad old days.
Pro-Saddam elements in the town already sense a general mood swing in their favour. Before, they largely contented themselves with wolf-whistling insultingly at passing US soldiers, and slaughtering a sheep in celebration whenever one got killed. Last week, though, a 250-strong crowd marched through town, carrying Saddam posters and firing guns.
Fallujans recognised most of the crowd as local street vendors, whose one-sale-a-day work schedules make them an easy rent-a-mob for wealthy local ex-Baathists.
However, the ex-Baathists insist it is ordinary Fallujans, and not them, who are now behind the real trouble.
Colonel Imad Mezel, for example, looks like a Saddam-era villain from central casting: a fat, mustachioed former Fedayeen commander, he sits in the vast lounge of his house in Fallujah, where, until recently, a picture hung of him swimming with his most recent boss, Uday Hussein.
"The people attacking the Americans are not Saddam loyalists, Baathists or even Fedayeen," he said. " They are just zealous young local men. They didn’t mind when the Americans invaded, but they are changing because of the way the Americans have behaved."
For Sheikh Khaled Saleh, a fiery local Sunni imam, it began not with the invasion of Iraq, but with 11 September.
"Iraqis hate Americans since the invasion of Afghanistan, because we believe their aim is to destroy all Muslims," he said. "The young men are not supporters of Saddam, but resisters to occupation."
He claims the US is already reaping divine retribution for recent events in Fallujah, citing Hurricane Isabel.
A short walk away from Sheikh Khaled’s mosque is the spot where Dr Ahmed Walda Daoud al-Kubaisi’s son, Sufyan, 16, was shot last week.
"My son was out on an errand when a US patrol heard shots being fired somewhere near," he said. "They just fired indiscriminately in a 360-degree circle."
Once again, the Americans have their own explanation for Sufyan’s death - namely, that no patrol was even in the area at the time, and that he probably died in the crossfire of an Iraqi-Iraqi exchange.
But in a land where authority has never been trusted, official explanations, even correct ones, get little attention. Ironically, with "blood money" payments of up to $2,500 (1,500) at stake, there is now a vested interest in blaming the Americans.
When it comes to bringing peace to Fallujah, there is one success story - the town’s mayor. Taha Bedawi Hamid has, with rare diplomatic flair, managed to retain both the confidence of the occupying forces and the area’s tribal leaders.
"The Iraqi policemen know the shooting was an accident," he said. "As for Saddam demonstrators: they are ignorant, uneducated criminals. Theirs is not the opinion of Fallujah citizens."
With that, he swung back to his desk, behind which hangs a pair of framed US army certificates citing grateful recognition of his many talents. Optimism, presumably, is one of them.
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