FALLUJAH, Iraq—Masked men carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and waving Iraqi flags rode through the deserted streets of Fallujah on Saturday, claiming victory in the withdrawal this week of U.S. Marines after a month-long siege of the city.
A day after the U.S.-led coalition announced it was handing over most security matters to a popular general from the former Iraqi regime, Fallujah residents tentatively stepped out of shuttered homes to find demolished buildings, uprooted palm trees, rows of shelled villas and car windows riddled with bullet holes.
They took comfort in what they did not see: Americans.
"The Americans have been pushed out by true soldiers, heroic men," said Shaker Adnan, 35, who wore the burgundy beret and dark camouflage of the Fallujah Brigade, the new proxy security force assembled by the coalition. "If the Americans were men, they would have never retreated. This triumph came from God."
Despite the coalition's insistence the move was not a retreat, local religious leaders called a victory prayer at a battle-scared mosque. Other Fallujah residents wept at a soccer stadium where dozens of anti-American fighters were buried in graves marked with crude tombstones and wilted flowers. So many bodies had arrived at the makeshift cemetery that a backhoe dug long trenches in the dirt, where the dead were buried single file.
Men with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders sobbed at one row of graves, where 26 members of the same family were buried. Several gravestones simply bore the inscription "unknown martyr," along with details of the remains. "Black beard, green trousers," read one marker. "Pieces of flesh, brown shirt," read another. An estimated 600 Iraqis died in the siege, according to hospital and news accounts.
"We're left with nothing but a few simple weapons, but we will continue to use them if the Americans return," said Hassan Ahmed, 35, who recited verses from the Quran over a plot. "Did you see the grave of the newborn? He never even got to see the light, rest his soul."
After threatening a major offensive, the coalition this week announced the pullback, and recruited Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohamed Saleh, a former Republican Guard two-star general, to oversee security inside the city. He'll command the Fallujah Brigade, the emerging force that eventually will have more than 1,000 troops stationed at checkpoints and conducting patrols throughout town.
The first checkpoint into Fallujah is still manned by U.S. Marines and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. On Saturday, barefoot children with rucksacks walked home with their mothers. About a third of the city's 200,000 residents left during the siege. The military denied reports that some Marines scribbled offensive words such as "pig" and "beer" onto the hands of returning residents.
Inside Fallujah, however, the streets belonged to men with checkered scarves over their faces, roaming freely with grenade launchers. They waved at passing cars and flashed the victory sign. Some "Mujahiddeen," as they are called here, drove white trucks around town with the nose of their weapons pointing out the window. Graffiti scrawled on walls read "Goodbye, USA," mirroring the jubilation expressed by residents.
"Today is the first day we feel safe in Fallujah," said Salima Daoud, 48, whose son was shot during the violence. "I haven't seen all the destruction yet. I'm just happy the Americans are gone."
At a green bridge over the Euphrates River, where the mutilated bodies of American security contractors dangled after they were ambushed last month, a Fallujah Brigade soldier allowed a visitor's car to cross with a stern warning: "Be careful. There are still Americans ahead." Across the bridge lay the road to the Jolan district, where insurgents are still surrounded by Marines after days of intense gun battles.
Along Old Market Street, which leads to the bridge, a single bakery was open and residents lined up for bread. But banks, music stores and groceries remained closed, their exteriors scarred by grenades and bullets.
Fallujah General Hospital stood virtually empty. A few doctors and a single patient remained after most had moved to a substitute hospital in a safer area. Hospital staff pointed to a fresh grave outside the emergency room where they said they had buried a mentally ill man accidentally shot to death by U.S. soldiers after he ran through the streets.
Adnan Chechan, a 29-year-old doctor sitting in the hospital office, declined a friend's invitation to the victory prayer service, though he said he shared in the celebration. He laughed with another doctor about a popular rumor in Fallujah that Marines entering the town from neighboring Ramadi waved white flags in surrender.
"This is a big win for us," Chechan said of the Marines' withdrawal. "Baghdad fell in two days, but Fallujah fought the Americans for a month. The siege was miserable, but we hope things get better in the next few days. The only thing we hope is that the Americans keep out of our town."
The hospital's chief ambulance driver was shot during the fighting, so Hakim Mohammed, a 36-year-old pharmacist, took over. On Saturday, Mohammed peered through the bullet-marked glass of the ambulance windshield as he led a visitor through the wreckage of the town.
He pointed out a flattened two-story apartment building, which he said was hit by U.S. air strikes on Thursday—during the ceasefire touted by the coalition. The Marines confirmed they responded to an attack from the building with mortars and an air strike.
Mohammed said he was driving back to the hospital when the bombing began, so he leaped from the ambulance and used his lab coat as a white flag as he ran for cover. The week before, he had moved his wife and five children into the hospital for safety. They went home Saturday after the announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"We're proud of the Mujahiddeen for defending the town," Mohammed said. Then, with the ambulance lights and sirens on, he drove away behind a small victory parade in which men fired guns into the air and chanted their gratitude to God for success.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since the decision to forgo an all-out attack and install the proxy force, the Marine in charge of U.S. operations in western Iraq bristled at characterizations that the Marines had "retreated" or "withdrawn" from the city.
"Both of those are dirty words in the vocabulary of a Marine," said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He described a realignment of forces that should allow Marines to go inside with convoys and to spend millions of dollars on reconstruction projects.
While Iraqis rejoiced inside the city, the scene remained tense on the way out. At the last checkpoint on the main road leading out of Fallujah, Marines ordered Iraqis to exit their cars for body searches. An elderly woman was allowed to remain in her family's sedan, prompting outrage from one young Marine.
"So, we're making exceptions now?" he angrily demanded of a fellow Marine.
"Dude, that's cruel," the other man responded. "How would you like someone to do that to your grandmother?"
(Knight Ridder correspondent Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.