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Killing, Mutilation of US Civilians in Iraq Stirs Wide Debate - 2004-04-01

A gruesome attack on four American civilians Wednesday in the Iraqi town of Fallujah has received worldwide attention. Mobs burned the bodies of the four men and then dragged the them through the street. Some experts say the attack was an isolated incident in a town known for its hatred of Americans. Others say it reflects more widespread anger against the coalition, and against U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt announced the attack as part of his matter-of-fact listing of several violent incidents in Iraq Wednesday.

"Also this morning, two vehicles carrying four coalition contractors were attacked in Fallujah," he said.

The general's routine announcement did not reflect the extreme anger that Fallujah residents displayed after the attack, in which four American civilians died.

Cheering mobs burned the men's bodies, kicked, beat, and dismembered their charred corpses. People chanted anti-American slogans, and one Iraqi boy was photographed holding up a piece of paper that read Fallujah is the cemetery for Americans.

Asked why they had such hatred for these American civilians, local residents in the Saddam Hussein stronghold claimed the men were spies.

The majority of Fallujah's 300,000 residents are Sunni Muslims, many of whom benefited under the Saddam Hussein regime. The town has been the site of many attacks on coalition forces.

But coalition spokesman Dan Senor says the people who desecrated the bodies of the dead Americans in Fallujah are not representative of most Iraqis.

"They are people who have a much different vision for the future of Iraq than the overwhelming majority of Iraqis," he said. "They are people who want to turn Iraq back to an era of mass graves, rape rooms and torture chambers, chemical attacks. They want to turn back to the era of Saddam Hussein."

But some Arab analysts believe that the anger displayed on Wednesday is widespread. Columnist Fahmy Howeidi, who writes for Cairo's Al-Ahram newspaper, says the violence reflects anger throughout the Middle East over Bush administration policies in the region.

"I am afraid it is not only in Iraq," he said. "I am afraid this administration widened the hatred for the Americans in the whole Arab region, not only in Iraq. I am afraid this could happen anyplace, in the Gulf States or in any Arab country because you never can imagine how this administration widened the hatred against American policy in the whole region."

But military analyst Mohammed Kadry Sa'id, from Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says progress is being made in Iraq. He says Wednesday's display of anger was an isolated incident, and steps being taken to move Iraq forward cannot be judged by one event in one city.

"I think that in Iraq there is some mixed feelings," he said. "From one side there is some improvement in many aspects, like government, maybe economy and so on. At the same time there are those groups who are doing violence and impeding the process of Iraq to a more safe future. I imagine that the majority in Iraq should be judged not only on those events happening around Baghdad. You should take into consideration other parts of Iraq that are not so violent."

General Kimmitt of the U.S.-led coalition agrees.

"It is a small minority of the people in Fallujah," said General Kimmitt. "Most of the people in Fallujah want to move on with their lives, move forward, want to be part of a new Iraq. There is a small core element that does not seem to get it."

Coalition officials say attacks like the one in Fallujah will not deter them their effort to stabilize and modernize Iraq, and to hand over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June.

But according to the head of the political science department at Cairo University, Hassan Nafaa, even after the transfer of sovereignty, the situation will not change dramatically.

"The new Iraqi government will be completely dependent on the American army, on the army of the coalition, and also the police will be too weak to be responsible for security," said Hassan Nafaa. "That is why I doubt very much that things will really change after the so-called transfer of sovereignty. The Iraqi government will not be a sovereign government [just] because a formal transfer of sovereignty has been done."

Many analysts expect the attacks to increase even more in the weeks leading up to the handover, and perhaps beyond.