FALLUJAH, Iraq—The explosion Friday rocked the dusty blue bus, sending tattooed tribeswomen to the floor in a swirl of fringed scarves and screams.
They were leaving town for a shopping trip to Baghdad, about 35 miles east, when insurgents apparently bombed a nearby American military checkpoint. None of the women was injured, but the blast destroyed the last vestige of their support for the guerrillas who make Fallujah the most consistently troublesome city for the U.S.-led coalition.
"Now you see how it feels, how we have to jump and duck when we hear explosions," Samia Abdullah, a 45-year-old Fallujah resident, told a Knight Ridder reporter on the bus. "Day and night, we are afraid, and we are tired of it. I can no longer feel proud of the resistance. They have made these bombings our everyday life."
Such disdain for anti-American attacks is a new phenomenon in Fallujah, where violence in recent weeks included two deadly attacks on U.S. helicopters, frequent grenade assaults on convoys, roadside bombs that blocked traffic for hours and the brazen drive-by shooting of two French contractors whose car broke down on a road leading to the town.
The celebrations that followed such attacks in the early days of the occupation are becoming more rare, several residents said, and martyrdom no longer seems noble when it means upturning the lives of ordinary Iraqis.
"I'm against the resistance now, and I'm not afraid to say it," said Mahmoud Ali, 25, who was tending a roadside soda stand. "I can bring you a dozen friends who say the same thing. I wish the attacks would stop. It's affecting our whole stability, our whole life."
Fallujah residents took advantage of Friday's sunshine to wash their cars, sweep their courtyards and treat their families to lunch at the city's nicest kebob restaurant. But, as often happens, those simple joys were overshadowed by the sounds of gunfire and the shouts of American soldiers who twice came under attack while sweeping a main street for hidden explosives.
"We need a strong hand to deal with those people," said Moussa Hasnoui, an Iraqi police officer who was turning cars away from a road where a rocket-propelled grenade interrupted a U.S. convoy Friday. "Overall, the situation is good and, God willing, it will continue to improve. But it can't unless we get rid of the rebels."
One of the largest obstacles to eradicating resistance is the city's Sunni-dominated Muslim clergy, who preach that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will leave their flocks powerless in a new government with rival Shiite Muslims at the helm. At noon prayers in a green-domed mosque in the heart of the city, scores of young men sat rapt as the voice of an unidentified imam crackled over a loudspeaker.
"We are losing a lot of believers, but don't beat your chests or tear your clothes in grief," he said. "God will deal with the Americans, and you can help by joining the mujahedeen (holy fighters). Kill the Americans. Destroy them; don't leave a single one alive."
In the past, those words would have inspired Abu Abdul Rahman, a 35-year-old resistance associate who wouldn't divulge his full name. For several weeks after the war, he said, he offered his farmhouse as a hideout for anti-American insurgents. His wife banned him from home for fear of a raid, and his two young sons begged him to stop dabbling in the resistance.
These days, Abu Abdul Rahman said, he's steering himself from the mosque, which is guarded by gun-toting men in scarves that reveal only their eyes. Last week, he added, he even found himself counseling a young guerrilla away from the fighters he once supported.
"My family is right," Abu Abdul Rahman said. "There are too many informants now, too many spies working for the Americans. I still believe we can't rid ourselves of invaders except by force, but I won't be the one doing it."
U.S. military officials said they'd also noticed an incremental wane in local support for Fallujah's fighters. On Friday, members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division recovered pieces of a Black Hawk helicopter that crashed Thursday on the outskirts of Fallujah, killing all nine soldiers on board. Witnesses said rockets fired from a nearby palm grove downed the helicopter, and the military hasn't ruled out enemy fire.
U.S. Army Capt. T. Franken surveyed the scene from inside an area cordoned off by armored vehicles. He allowed the daughters of a local shepherd to come inside the cordon for a closer look. The girls giggled and stared at the uniformed Americans.
"We never used to see the parents letting their daughters come near us," Franken said. "When those kids right there grow up and know they can live peacefully, that's success. When you raise one generation of kids who don't have the pressure to fight, that's success."
Franken paused as gunfire rippled from the trees around his team.
"Do you hear that? Small arms fire," he said. "And guess what? It's not from us."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FALLUJAH