FALLUJAH, Iraq—The kebab cafes were bustling Thursday. So was the bakery, which had only half-shuttered during the fiery attack the day before that left four American security consultants dead and their corpses burned and mutilated.
The Marines were still outside town, and traffic opposite the al Badia Restaurant was occupation-era typical—four cars squeezed into three lanes.
Some 24 hours after the attacks, all that remained of the scene was a business-as-usual atmosphere and this:
A foot-high pile of twisted charred metal, swept to the roadside, two sooty black stains on the road and a conspiracy theory.
Minutes before the Americans' two white sport utility vehicles joined the traffic snarl, unemployed accountant Salaam Khalaf said, "Someone said they belonged to the Mossad," the Israeli foreign intelligence agency.
The word passed around the block at the busy intersection. So when gunmen opened fire on the cars, killing everyone inside, someone grabbed jerry cans of gasoline from nearby street vendors, threw it on the cars and sparked an inferno.
The rest is more or less known through television footage and photographs taken by Iraqis in the crowd, some on the payroll of Western news agencies. The gunmen slipped away and the street took over, kicking and mutilating the blackened corpses of the four employees of Blackwater USA, dragging two to a bridge over the Euphrates River and hanging them like slaughtered sheep.
In Baghdad on Thursday, U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer called those who perpetrated the attacks "human jackals who defiled the streets of Fallujah" in an address to the Iraqi Police Academy.
"The acts we have seen were despicable and inexcusable," Bremer said. "Their deaths will not go unpunished."
"We will be back in Fallujah ... at the time and place of our choosing," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the deputy commander of operations in Baghdad. "We will hunt down the criminals. We will kill them. Or we will capture them. And we will pacify Fallujah."
Coalition officials confirmed that private guards in Bremer's security detail also are provided by Blackwater, a North Carolina security consultancy firm founded by Navy SEALs eight years ago.
They wouldn't elaborate on what the four Americans' mission was or why they weren't escorted by U.S. forces as they drove through the predominantly Sunni Muslim town 45 minutes from Baghdad. Through a year of American occupation, guerrillas in Fallujah have shot down U.S. helicopters, mortared American bases and fought in the streets through three U.S. troop rotations.
Bakery worker Khalil Hilal said there was no whiff of what was to come before Wednesday's assault.
"It was just an ordinary day. I was working at the ovens—then I heard shouting and saw a gathering," said Hilal, 31, who half-shuttered the shop opposite the inferno and continued selling bread.
He hadn't heard the Mossad rumor. "It's just a matter of revenge," he said with a shrug, calling the carnage the latest in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence between American forces that stage raids on the town and shadowy fighters attacking them.
Townspeople said they expected the Marines to storm in at any moment.
At Marine headquarters, officers cited security concerns and refused to describe their current campaign. Officials also declined to describe efforts to recover the Americans' remains for burial. But a senior Iraqi security official in the area held out little hope that the Americans ever would recover the charred bodies.
"It's difficult. If I knew where the bodies are, I'd put them in the ground and pray on them," said Col. Khalil Ibrahim Mohammed, who serves as a liaison between the U.S. forces and the newly reconstituted Iraqi police and Civil Defense corps.
A native of Fallujah who'd served 22 years in the Iraqi army before the Americans came, he blamed "many bad men and children—not civilized Muslims" for Wednesday's mayhem.
Even a day later, he warned, the town was "too risky" for Americans. "The people who did this yesterday, they're dangerous. If I knew them, I'd kill them—because I love my country."
Blackwater announced that "out of respect for the families" it would shield the names of the victims. Witnesses in Fallujah described them as three men and a woman.
"We grieve today for the loss ... ," the North Carolina firm said in a statement on its Web site. "The graphic images of the unprovoked attack and subsequent heinous mistreatment of our friends exhibits the extraordinary conditions under which we voluntarily work to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people."
In other news from Iraq on Thursday:
_Bremer decreed a 5 percent customs tax on most imported items, called a "reconstruction levy," to start April 15, the deadline for filing income-tax returns in the United States.
The levy will take Iraq one step closer to regaining self-governance, by putting in place another source of revenue that doesn't rely on oil sales, a coalition announcement said.
_Military officials reported no U.S. casualties on the first day of the month. March's death toll was the second highest of any month since President Bush declared major combat over 11 months ago.