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Iraq: Anti-American Sentiment Continues To Simmer In Sunni Stronghold

U.S. troops continue to be the target of sporadic attacks in Iraq. One American soldier was killed today by reported hostile fire while traveling on a major supply line. The incident comes on the heels of an incident on 27 May in which two soldiers were killed and nine injured in an ambush outside Al-Fallujah. It is not the first time the Sunni town has seen clashes between Iraqis and U.S. troops. RFE/RL reports from Al-Fallujah.

Al-Fallujah, 29 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It has been nearly a month since U.S. President George W. Bush declared that "major combat operations" had ended in Iraq. But U.S. troops continue to be killed in isolated attacks throughout the country.

The worst such incident in recent weeks came on 27 May outside the town of Al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad. Iraqi attackers opened fire at a U.S. military checkpoint, killing two American soldiers and wounding nine more. Two of the attackers were also killed when U.S. troops returned fire.

Al-Fallujah has been the site of sporadic violence since the U.S.-led war in Iraq began. At least 17 people were killed and dozens more injured during clashes in late April between anti-American demonstrators and U.S. troops. In the weeks that followed, banners reading "USA leave our country" and threatening to kick out "U.S. killers" could be seen hanging over roadways and near former Ba'ath Party buildings.

What makes this town of 500,000 people so restless? Zyiiad Makhlaf al-Arar, the deputy mayor of Al-Fallujah, says it's because it is Iraq's spiritual center of Sunni Islam. With nearly 200 mosques in the city and surrounding villages, he says, Al-Fallujah is called the "holy city of mosques." He continues: "Al-Fallujah has a religious heritage and tribal laws. It abides both to Sharia [Islamic] laws and civil laws."

The deputy mayor says there was no looting in Al-Fallujah following the fall of Baghdad, and credits the city's religious and tribal codes with helping to maintain order and the quick election of a mayor, Taha Bidaywi Hamed, who has been recognized by U.S. forces.

The city was home to many senior Ba'ath Party officials and was traditionally loyal to deposed leader Saddam Hussein. Even so, al-Arar says, even the Iraqi leader himself could not control the city the way he could control other Ba'ath strongholds like Tikrit.

In part, it is Al-Fallujah's self-sufficiency that has contributed to the city's atmosphere of anti-Americanism. Al-Arar says a town so deeply rooted in Islam can never accept the presence of foreign forces on its soil, and that while the Americans may have been right to invade Iraq, the people of Al-Fallujah see no difference between "occupiers" and "liberators."

Even so, city authorities are trying to stem the mounting hostilities. Mayor Hamed this week met with spiritual and tribal leaders in an attempt to cool tempers still burning over the persistent U.S. presence.

Sheikh Fawzi Abdala al-Kubaysi, the imam of Al-Fallujah's Al-Kidya mosque, says U.S. troops failed to heed repeated warnings from spiritual and tribal leaders to base themselves outside the city. The U.S. military headquarters in Al-Fallujah now occupy the city's former Ba'ath Party offices. Al-Kubaysi says he and other Sunnis feel insulted by the presence of foreign troops, and that violence in Al-Fallujah is likely to continue as long as U.S. troops are there.

"Firstly, the Americans must leave the town. They have places like [former] government buildings and warehouses to protect from thieves, and other things to do," al-Kubaysi says.

"They shouldn't be inside the city," the imam repeated several times. He says the violence so far has been largely isolated attacks by individuals, but adds that the city's religious leaders may issue a fatwa for launching a jihad, or holy war, if U.S. forces continue to reside in Al-Fallujah.

One city administration employee said some 24 Iraqis have been killed in the Al-Fallujah violence, and that the families have received no compensation or even visits from U.S. troops -- something he says is a strict violation of tribal law. He says the anti-American sentiment is only likely to grow worse with time.

The U.S. troops based in Al-Fallujah refused to comment on the situation. One officer, who refused to give his name, said they are still looking for explanations for the recent attacks and suspect that radical Islamic groups or pro-Hussein operatives may have been involved.