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Iraq: Latest Incidents Cement Al-Fallujah's Reputation As Hotbed Of Anti-U.S. Sentiment

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad says Al-Fallujah is one of the Iraqi towns that "still doesn't get it" -- that is, does not understand that there is no going back to the old regime. Mark Kimmitt's comments came after a particularly brutal incident in the town yesterday, when angry crowds dragged the mutilated bodies of four American civilian contractors through the streets. It caps one of the most deadly months for Americans in Iraq, and secures the town's reputation as a hotbed of anti-American insurgency.

Prague, 1 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt spoke yesterday following a particularly brutal attack in the town of Al-Fallujah.

"Fallujah remains one of those cities in Iraq that just [doesn't] get it. It is a former Ba'athist stronghold. This was a city that profited immeasurably and immensely under the former regime. They have a view that, somehow, the harder they fight, the better chance they have of achieving some sort of restorationist movement within the country."

Four American civilian contractors were shot and burned in their cars. Their bodies were then mutilated and dragged through the streets. Jubilant crowds strung two of the corpses from a bridge. One man held a sign: "Fallujah is the cemetery for Americans."

In another incident, five U.S. soldiers died when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near the town.

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said today the deaths will not go unpunished.

"Yesterday's events in Fallujah are a dramatic example of the ongoing struggle between human dignity and barbarism."

Neil Partrick of London's Economist Intelligence Unit says many in Al-Fallujah do feel resentment toward the new order Washington is fostering in Iraq.

"The Sunni Arabs who were formerly the beneficiaries of the very partial [based on favoritism] distribution of political and economic gains under the former system and, indeed, all others in Iraq since its founding, feel they are being dispossessed of a number of the benefits under the political and economic reconstruction process. And indeed, among the partners to that political reconstruction that the U.S. has, Sunni representation is not felt by that community to be particularly representative of its views or indeed to encompass many of its senior members," Partrick says.

But as Partrick notes, Al-Fallujah has that in common with other majority Sunni Arab towns in the so-called “Sunni triangle” north and northwest of Baghdad.

Mustafa Alani is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the United Kingdom. He says it's wrong to assume the problem is related to support for the old regime. In fact, he says, Al-Fallujah has a long history or revolting against the old regime, including a failed attempt to topple Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s.

Alani points to other factors -- Al-Fallujah is in a tribal area, and is one of the centers of Sunni Islam. But he says one reason for anti-U.S. feeling stands out above all others.

"I believe the major factor that transferred Fallujah to a flashpoint was the misbehavior of the American forces in Fallujah toward the end of the war,” before Washington declared the end of major combat on 1 May.

Alani is referring to an incident in April 2003, when U.S. soldiers fired on a crowd demonstrating at a school and killed some 18 people. The Americans said they were fired on first -- but people in the town claimed the demonstrators were unarmed children.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the town has since been the site of frequent attacks on coalition troops and Iraqi police, and has gained a reputation as a center for the armed insurgency.

Alani says it's now a vicious circle -- the U.S. Marines responsible for the town have what he calls a “heavy handed” approach, and that fuels resentment even more.

"It's really very hard now -- the way the Americans are still behaving in this area, one can't control the situation. Security measures will not really bring any result. I think we need local people, and local people are basically now punished by those people who are fighting the Americans, they are concentrating their punishment on the local people who are cooperating with the Americans. I think we are facing a major flashpoint in Fallujah and it's very hard to control," Alani says.

Kimmitt yesterday downplayed attacks like the Al-Fallujah incidents as an "uptick" -- a slight increase -- in "localized engagements."

But they cap a deadly month for U.S.-led troops in Iraq -- the bloodiest since November.

Alani says incidents like yesterday's attacks lead him to doubt if there is any major improvement in security overall.

That's led some observers to wonder if the security problems will weaken U.S. public support for Washington's Iraq policy.

Shocking as the images were, Partrick says it would take a good deal more of this kind of incident to prompt American public opinion to shift against the American military presence there.

"If armed opponents of the U.S. presence were to continually and successively present images on the front pages of American newspapers, rather than the inside columns -- suggesting more and more success in hitting American targets -- were that to go on over a period of weeks and months to an increasing degree, then one would imagine that might have some impact on American popular opinion and possibly American policy,” Partrick says.

But he says, “U.S. plans for redeployment -- albeit not a removal of their presence -- in the next few months, and also reconfiguring of the nature of their political and military presence are very much in train and seem unlikely, in my view, to be shaken."

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