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Iraq: Al-Fallujah Dispatch -- Local Leaders Attempt To Mollify Anti-American Sentiment After Deadly Clashes

At least 17 people were killed and dozens of others injured during last week's clashes between anti-American demonstrators and the U.S. military in the Iraqi town of Al-Fallujah. The bloody events in the town of 200,000 people has created a new source of tension between locals and the Americans, RFE/RL reports.

Al-Fallujah, Iraq; 5 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Visitors to the Iraqi city of Al-Fallujah, some 50 kilometers west of Baghdad, are first greeted by the usual welcoming billboards. But numerous anti-American banners hanging above Al-Fallujah's central road quickly catch the eye.

The banners read: "USA Leave Our Country" and "Go Out From Our City."

There is another sign hanging in front of the former headquarters of the local Ba'ath Party, which the U.S. military has turned into its headquarters. It reads: "Sooner or later, U.S. killers, we will kick you out!"

The streets and mosques of this traditional Sunni stronghold still boil with anger and bitterness toward the U.S. military after clashes between soldiers and anti-American demonstrators left at least 17 residents dead and many more wounded last week.

The clashes began on 28 April when U.S. troops say they returned fire from a crowd of protesters that had gathered in front of a school the soldiers were using as a camp. Protesters reappeared at the school two days later, sparking more shooting. The following day, attackers tossed two grenades into another U.S. Army compound, wounding seven soldiers.

It remains unclear who initiated the protest march that sparked the chain of clashes. Some Al-Fallujah residents say the marchers set off from the city's central mosque after U.S. soldiers entered the mosque to conduct a search. Others say a peaceful crowd had gone to ask U.S. soldiers to leave the building so it could serve again as a school.

The U.S. soldiers have since left the building, which has now reopened for classes.

Taha Bidaywi Hamed is the new mayor of Al-Fallujah, recently selected by religious and tribal leaders. Hamed noted that many high-ranking Ba'ath Party officials in Baghdad were originally from Al-Fallujah and that they returned to their hometown during the war.

The mayor said he suspects these officials provoked the demonstration by playing on people's religious sentiments and directing them against the Americans, which led to the bloodshed. "They [Ba'ath members] tried to make a move within this town because they are not able to be active in the capital," he said.

Although most local religious and tribal leaders are critical of the U.S. military presence in Al-Fallujah -- indeed in Iraq as a whole -- they say they support the mayor's efforts to prevent new clashes and are calling on their followers not to protest and to give the U.S. Army time to leave.

At the same time, however, some local leaders -- such as Sheik Al Boisa, a member of Al-Fallujah's new city council -- warn that if the Americans ignore the calls to leave, Iraq could become another Palestine. "There will be more casualties from both the American and our side, like what's happening in Israel," Al Boisa said.

Meanwhile, the families of the victims mourn for their lost loved ones.

Raeed, a 34-year-old telecommunications engineer, said his 40-year-old brother Valid was killed and that his mother and sister-in-law were injured on the first night of clashes. He said they were eating dinner in their houses near the Al-Qayd primary school, from where the U.S. soldiers shot the demonstrators.

"This is nothing but terrorism," Raeed said. "The Americans used night-vision, laser pointers, and explosive bullets to kill innocent people in their houses." He said the violence has triggered hatred toward the U.S. soldiers and a desire for revenge.

"We will never forget what happened. Never, never. And we will never forgive the Americans and we will try all the years [to come] to destroy the Americans. Not all Americans, because there are good people in America. But we will kill the killers from America," Raeed said.

Despite these threats, the U.S. soldiers in Al-Fallujah that RFE/RL spoke with believe that goodwill still remains.

Captain Mike Riedmuller, a spokesman for U.S. troops based in Al-Fallujah, said the majority of the local population is friendly toward his troops and wants them to provide the town with security and the conditions for a normal life.

"I would say I believe there is a very small group of people out there who are anti-American and who are arranging the protests and so forth. I mean, the bulk of the people here are happy to get on with their lives without Saddam. They want to rebuild their country. And the thing we have been saying all along -- Iraq for Iraqis, they get their government, they control it. They are in control, and we leave," Riedmuller said.

Riedmuller added that his soldiers have a right to self-protection if they face hostile actions by the local population. He said this is what happened on 28 April and that the U.S. military won't hesitate to use force again under similar circumstances.

Continuing talks between the mayor of Al-Fallujah, its religious and tribal leaders, and the U.S. commanders in the town are aimed at preventing more such incidents. The mayor said both sides have agreed that U.S. soldiers will guard strategic locations in the city, such as power stations, water treatment facilities, hospitals and police stations, and will continue hunting for former Ba'ath Party officials. But it has been agreed that their military camp will be on the outskirts of Al-Fallujah.

Some locals believe this compromise may not be enough to ease tensions in the town, however.

The events in Al-Fallujah are a measure of the task U.S. forces now have before them in controlling central areas of Iraq, which once formed the heartland of support for toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The relatively prosperous agricultural town was for decades ruled by Ba'ath Party leaders and a group of Sunni clerics vetted by the government for their support of the regime.

The top party leaders have now fled but their loyalists remain and fear the new order will strip them of their former privileges. Loyalist clerics also continue to preach in the central mosque, which appears to have become one focal point for the unrest.

"The Washington Post" has reported that during last week's demonstrations, a parade of jeering Iraqis carried one cleric, Jamal Shaker, on their shoulders past a U.S. Army headquarters. The paper said Jamal and his brother Kamal are among the most powerful religious men in the town and are widely believed to fear losing their positions.