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Iraq: Al-Fallujah Dispatch -- Sheikh Fawzi Calls For Patience As Tension Mounts

Al-Fallujah, Iraq; 2 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Today's day of prayers in the Iraqi city of Al-Fallujah were markedly tense following a week of violence between U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova is in Al-Fallujah, where she reports religious leaders are urging a temporary break in the protests to allow U.S. forces to withdraw peacefully.

Question: You witnessed prayer services at Al-Fallujah's central Hamoud al-Mahmoud mosque. What message did the imam, Sheikh Fawzi, deliver to those attending?

Eshanova: He was aware that there were a lot of foreign journalists, a lot of TV crews [in the mosque], and that's why he addressed the first part of his speech to the international community and to the U.S. administration, to the Bush administration. And he said, "You made big, big promises to the people of Iraq, to the people of the region. You claim that you came to Iraq to liberate the people of Iraq from the tyranny, and you promised a better life to the people. So why are you not keeping these promises? So far we haven't seen anything but destruction, lootings and the killings.'" And he said, "You changed one dictatorship in this country and now you are building a new dictatorship, which is the U.S. administration in Iraq, who doesn't care about the needs of the people of Iraq, their needs, and who doesn't respect their culture, their cultural heritage."

Question: The people of Al-Fallujah -- a town that was traditionally loyal to Saddam Hussein -- are clearly very angry about the presence of U.S. troops in their city. Did the imam say anything to help ease tensions?

Eshanova: The second part of the imam's speech was addressed to the people of Al-Fallujah. He asked them to be patient. He asked the people of Al-Fallujah to give Americans a chance to fulfill their promises, and he asked them to stay at home and not to organize gatherings, not to go to protest meetings, [to avoid bloodshed]. [He said,] "If we stay at home, it doesn't mean that we are cowards, that we are not taking care of the destiny of our country, of our people. But we will fight, we'll continue our fight if the Americans don't fulfill their promises."

Question: What is the U.S. military presence like in Al-Fallujah?

Eshanova: I was coming from Baghdad, and when we approached the outskirts of Al-Fallujah, it's so obvious that the United States military is building up new bases here, new camps. I've seen two camps in the outskirts of Al-Fallujah. One of them is based in a railway station. I saw there hundreds of soldiers and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles. And as I understood they were preparing more camps, more tents for maybe new additional forces. And on the way to Al-Fallujah I saw two U.S. convoys. In one there were 18 armored vehicles; in another were eight tanks. And when we entered the town itself, immediately at the entrance of the town, there was the occupied former Ba'ath Party building, and on the roof of this two-story building I saw dozens of American soldiers with machine guns anxiously looking at the people around, because there were people gathering around this building and it was a very tense situation there.

Question: Al-Fallujah authorities appeared today to be urging patience in dealing with American troops -- but only for 48 hours. What can you tell us about the time frame?

Eshanova: The [Al-Fallujah] governor himself, in an interview with me, didn't mention any time frame. But [people praying] in this mosque and some of the sheikhs mentioned this 48-hour deadline. They set this time frame and they asked the Americans to leave the town -- the American military, they should leave the center of the town and they should pull back to the outskirts of Al-Fallujah where they have these big military camps and bases. And that's why now the governor and all the respected imams are calling on the people not to go to demonstrations until the U.S. military gets a chance to fulfill its promise [to leave]. And so I've heard from a lot of people here -- young men, they were telling us that after 48 hours they will continue. If Americans don't pull back, if the American military doesn't pull back from the town, they will continue their demonstrations, their protest meetings.