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Report from Fallujah:  Iraqi Town Remains Anti-American Flashpoint - 2003-11-06

U.S. troops in the restive Iraqi town of Fallujah say Tuesday's arrests of two former Iraqi generals should help to significantly decrease the number of violent incidents in the area. The generals are suspected of financing and ordering attacks on U.S. troops in and around the town for the past six months. But the town remains a volatile flash point for opposition to American forces.

Dressed in a flowing white traditional Arab robe, Fallujah resident Seritan Al-Issawi fingers a long string of prayer beads and poses a question he says is on the minds of all of the residents here.

Mr. Al-Issawi says he understands that the United States did not like the government of Saddam Hussein, so it sent its troops to get rid of him. But now that Saddam is gone, he asks, why are American troops still in Iraq?

Mr. Al-Issawi and other people in this town, about 55 kilometers west of Baghdad, say they are vehemently opposed to any continuing U.S. presence in Iraq, even if the aim is to rebuild the country.

The Third Brigade of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division is currently in charge of security in the Fallujah area. Senior officers acknowledge the violence against U.S. troops has been relentless. Since April, dozens of U.S. troops have been killed and wounded in rocket-propelled grenade attacks and by explosive devices left on the roads.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Donovan is the 3rd Brigade's executive officer. "This brigade got here in early August. There were two to three, if not up to five, attacks a day in Fallujah and the vicinity of Fallujah on Highways 10 and one that were killing Americans or maiming Americans and maiming their own people," he said.

In the latest escalation, assailants armed with shoulder-fired missiles, shot down a U.S. Army transport helicopter in a cornfield near Fallujah on Sunday, killing 15 soldiers and wounding nearly two dozen.

The resistance has been especially sharp in Fallujah, partly because Saddam had been generous to his fellow Sunni Muslim residents here.

The former Iraqi dictator built factories that generated jobs for local workers and wealth for the city's businessmen. Saddam also recruited thousands of men from Fallujah for his elite military forces, such as the Special Republican Guard. Those men are now either dead or unemployed.

U.S. officials in Iraq blame most of the violence in Fallujah and other parts of Iraq, on a small group of Saddam loyalists, who are believed to be paying people to carry out attacks against coalition forces and other western targets.

But another Fallujah resident, who does not want to be identified, says many people here remain deeply angry over the loss of privileges they enjoyed under Saddam and are only too happy to be paid in a campaign to drive the Americans out.

He says the main reason for the people's anger against Americans lies in the Iraqi perception that the U.S. military is indiscriminate in its use of force against ordinary citizens.

The Fallujah resident says if an Iraqi shoots one round at a U.S. convoy, the soldiers shoot back at everybody in the area and kill innocent people. He says that is what angers people the most.

Residents in Fallujah are still seething over an incident that occurred here soon after American troops arrived in town.

In late April, at least 15 Iraqis, including children, were killed during a protest that turned violent. Residents say U.S. forces opened fire into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. U.S. officials say the soldiers fired back in self-defense after being shot at from the crowd.

Seritan Al-Issawi says the shooting poisoned relations between U-S troops and Fallujah residents from the very beginning. Shaking his finger at Western reporters, he says no one in this city will ever forgive the soldiers for what happened in April.

Mr. Al-Issawi says, if you hurt the people of Fallujah, you can expect to be hurt a thousand times in return.

The U.S. Army's Lieutenant Colonel Donovan disputes Mr. Al-Issawi's gloomy assessment. He says he believes his unit of about 1,000 paratroopers has implemented a much more effective approach to solving Fallujah's security problems than preceding military units used.

Instead of staying largely outside of the city and entrusting security to the Iraqi police, Lieutenant Colonel Donovan says the 82nd Airborne men are conducting foot patrols in every part of town and interacting with the local people.

"Because we interact with them, we are getting more intelligence from the people on who the bad people are," he said. "Every day, people are coming in to say, 'Hey, so and so did this. Go get him. Here is where he is.' And we go get him. When we first got here in early August, those people were not waving at us or helping us. But after a month or two of seeing us and seeing how we operate and what we're trying to do, I think their minds and attitudes have changed and it shows on a daily basis."

U.S. Army officials say they believe Iraqi cooperation will continue to improve in Fallujah until most, if not all, of the Saddam loyalists, foreign fighters and other perpetrators behind the attacks are caught.

But if some people in Fallujah are to be believed, U.S. troops may face continuing violent opposition from the city's fiercely anti-American, revenge-seeking residents.