FALLUJAH, Iraq—Soldiers walked slowly past the mosque, looking up at its tower and blue mosaic tile. Their machine guns pointed out toward the night, they passed in and out of darkness, with dim streetlights casting long shadows.
Fallujah is a sweltering hot city on the bank of the Euphrates, and at 1:30 in the morning, the temperature stood at about 100 degrees. Sweat was dripping down 1st Lt. Eric Moberley's neck as he made his way up one narrow alley after the other.
"Ever since the war ended, the action started," Moberley said. "I don't see an end to it all any time soon it's like anarchy. The police don't do anything. They won't go out at night because they're afraid."
Moberley and his fellow soldiers, of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, were brought in to help the 3rd Infantry Division get the town under control. The 3rd ID itself came to town to relieve the 82nd Airborne Division, which ran into a lot of problems, including a late April demonstration in which at least 12 local residents were shot and killed.
Moberley's orders to Fallujah came, he said, with a description: "They said it was like the Wild West."
Perhaps more than any other part of the country, Fallujah has come to symbolize the failure of U.S. forces to bring peace and stability to Iraq. Troops stationed in the city are dangerously out of touch with the people they are trying to control. Commanders admit they have no idea who is repeatedly attacking them or why. Their principal conduit to the people of the town is a mayor backed by coalition forces who commands little respect even across the street from his office. And hostility to the United States is growing at an alarming pace, perhaps already crossing a point of no return.
No less than three soldiers have been killed and 21 wounded in Fallujah since major combat operations ended on May 1, an average, roughly, of one soldier hit every two days.
Beyond that, there is an unknown number of daily attacks that don't net military casualties. There have been at least three rocket-propelled grenade ambushes during the past week.
Last Sunday, one tore through a 3rd ID vehicle. None of the soldiers was injured. A journalist was hit; his pelvis shattered and a mass of flesh torn from his side.
Col. Joseph DiSalvo commands the second brigade of the 3rd ID, the major Army presence in Fallujah. He said he's at a loss about who's shooting at his men.
"I have no idea, it could be former Baath party members. It could be mob-type people. It's hard to say because there are so many elements here with agendas," DiSalvo said. The violence comes, he said, "in random-type ambushes, (that are) very hard to hunt down and stop because of the randomness."
It's gotten to the point, DiSalvo said, where emboldened locals are apparently launching green flares to signal oncoming tanks patrols, and red ones for soldiers on foot. But, he conceded, that correlation is "a supposition," not something he can pin down for sure.
There is a map tracking flare incidents on the wall of an intelligence unit tent at the 3rd ID camp. A nearby chart has a drawing of a hunter holding a bunch of dead ducks by the neck and slashes on it for Iraqi fighters killed, under the phrase "Operation Smackdown."
Also on the wall is a list of details about the attacks so far, including the apparent preferred hours of operation: 7 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.
Because the Army has not located a central base of operations for the attacks, or organizing force behind them, commanders are left to send out patrols during that nighttime slot in hopes of drawing fire and then hunting down the attackers.
"It takes a lot of patience, because it's a lot of hard work out there and coming back with nothing," DiSalvo said.
Although DiSalvo would not use the term, patrols such as Moberley's are essentially bait. And soldiers may have a price on their heads. Because a lot of the shooters have been found with large amounts of cash on them, Army officials have concluded that they're being paid to shoot soldiers.
Many Fallujah residents say the attacks were first motivated by anger about house searches, but are now fueled by a cycle of revenge that comes out of incidents like the April demonstration.
"The martyr's families will get revenge, and the coalition forces will shoot randomly and kill others, then the other families will revenge their sons, and that will continue until they are gone forever," said a town resident who goes by the name of Abu Mustafa—father of Mustafa.
"You get the feeling we're still not wanted here," said Sgt. Hocken Smith of the 3rd ID, who said his unit gets shot at almost every night while on patrol. "They were told we were going to liberate and not occupy, and they want us out."
Standing next to Smith at a row of concrete barracks on the outskirts of Fallujah, Sgt. Anthony Sollano said, "our morale's kind of low right now.
"We're just ready to go home it sucks, pretty much."
The soldiers of the 3rd ID, the two men pointed out, were deployed to Kuwait more than eight months ago, fought the main thrust of the Iraqi war, and are still taking fire from people who speak a language they don't understand.
Despite all that, DiSalvo said he thinks the majority of Fallujah residents support the American presence and have been impressed with task forces of soldiers working to repair the sewage and electrical infrastructure.
"We've turned the corner," he said. "The hearts and minds thing, we've done that. But we've got probably 20 percent on the fence."
As proof, he said, the town's mayor, Taha Alwani, has often told the press that he welcomes the U.S. troops.
Ask almost anyone in Fallujah, though, and they'll say they hate the Americans and do not trust Alwani, who was installed, not voted in, with the blessings of U.S. troops.
Alwani, a former Iraqi exile—which makes him a foreigner in the eyes of many—spoke recently about the residents of Fallujah. Because they were misled by deposed dictator Saddam Hussein for so many years, he said, Fallujah citizens are unable to make decisions for themselves.
"They do not know what is good for them. Until now they do not know how to think," he said. "The people are still confused."
The Army has in the past week strung concertina wire around much of the outside of the mayor's office and adjacent police station, and put up sand-filled walls guarded by a tank to the rear of the block.
It was Alwani that the Army turned to after the Monday explosion of a building in a mosque compound that killed 10 Iraqis. Thursday, Alwani said that he knew the Americans were not behind the explosion, which killed the mosque's spiritual leader, or Imam.
Engineers with the 3rd ID have since said the debris pattern shows conclusively that the explosion came from inside. The U.S. Army's Central Command sent out a release saying there'd apparently been a bomb making class going on at the time.
A lot of people in Fallujah no longer care what the Americans or Alwani say. They're convinced the United States launched a missile at the building, targeting Imam Laith Khalil, who'd spoken out against the presence of troops in the city.
Amar Mahmoud, standing at a soda stand less than a block from the mayor's office, said he was sure the Americans attacked the mosque. In return, he said, "they will be killed in the streets, one by one."
A few yards away, Bilal Al Kubaisi, who owns a tire store, said "they attacked the mosque. The mayor does not represent the people of Fallujah." The killings, he said, will come soon.
Out on foot patrol at night, Lt. Moberley walked right past Kubaisi's store. With his men fanning out to the left and right of him, Moberley kept checking a map of the city, trying to figure out which way to go.
At some point, they turned off the main road, back down another side street. Stepping into darkness, they went ahead, wondering what the next block might bring.
(Lasseter reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): FALLUJAH
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