BAGHDAD, Iraq—The sheik used his fingers to dig tender bits of meat from the lamb ribs and drop them, one at a time, into a guest's bowl.
"Here," he said, winking. "This is especially nice."
This was Sheik Manujid al Ersan al Zubae's lunch, and he wanted it known that every courtesy would be given.
"This is how we are, the Iraqi people, the people of Fallujah," he said. "We are very generous. This is our nature."
It's not the nature that's been on television for the past two weeks, as Americans have become familiar with that small city west of Baghdad. It was there that four Americans driving through town were pulled from their white SUV, murdered and hung from a bridge on March 31. Last week, as U.S. Marines came to investigate, locals opened fire, kicking off what became a siege, then an invasion.
Fallujah and Ramadi just west became the most violent spots in a very violent week for U.S.-led coalition forces, where an estimated 23 Marines and at least 700 Iraqis died.
The sheik, who leads a tribe of 1 million people in Iraq, was in Fallujah during the fight. He came to Baghdad on Sunday, when Marines opened the roads and let people out. He'd buried several family members, and a great many friends.
"We buried them in the football field, where the children should be playing," he said.
Around an oval table covered in black leather sat several of his friends and advisers. There were an attorney, the owner of a construction company, the owner of a cleaning service and two retired men. They were Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and one was Christian. Some were from Fallujah, another was from Mosul, one was from Baghdad. Food platters covered every inch of the table, such salad dishes as fattush and tabbouleh, rices and chicken tikka and piles of breads, and more.
The meal was leisurely, and they wanted their guest to understand the nuances of the meal, the conversations and the etiquette, because they thought many of the problems in their city stemmed from a lack of understanding of their nuances, their culture.
Coalition troubles in Fallujah began in late April 2003, when U.S. soldiers addressing a large crowd heard gunfire and returned it, killing 13 people and wounding 50. Last September, Marines passing a wedding heard celebratory shooting, thought they were under attack, and killed a teenager and wounded six people.
At the lunch, the men agreed there was much more wrong than the killings.
"They robbed us of our dignity," said Raad Manfi, who lives in Baghdad these days but whose family lives in Fallujah. "They came in believing we were uncivilized, and they treated us like animals."
The Americans mistreated women, he said. When they came to search homes for weapons, they not only tore through possessions, they also frisked the wives, daughters and mothers of Fallujah men, before their eyes.
"You must understand, for a Muslim man, there is no greater insult," he said, struggling to explain the offense and settling on the Western comparison of being forced to watch the rapes of loved ones. "Once this has happened, you have no choice but to fight those who did it, to take up a gun and protect your women."
Fallujah is a conservative Islamic city. There are more mosques per capita there than anyplace else on Earth, residents boast. In this culture, women don't shake hands or eat in the presence of men other than their husbands. When they venture out, they cover up, all but a slit for sight.
"This is of great importance to us," the sheik agreed, and heads nodded. "We cannot allow this."
Coalition troops also hauled women away to prison. Again, this isn't done. When a woman must be jailed, the police tell the head of the family, who will deliver her. This allows the man to maintain dignity, to show that he's in control of his household.
When Marines came again to search their city after the murders, the result was predictable: Men unwilling to see their women debased again took up arms.
At the lunch, the food was served on communal platters. Those eating a dish simply reached out spoons and took bites. Most transferred the food directly to their mouths. As they ate, heads shook when they were asked whether Fallujah was a hopeless situation after the first shootings, now, and in the future. No, they said. There were peaceful solutions even in this latest crime. The mob scene disturbed many in the city.
"The deaths of four foreigners did not concern us so much," the sheik said. "They were foreigners. But the mutilations of the bodies? That, my friend, upset us. That is against God."
There was a rumor in the town that the four Americans were Mossad, the Israeli secret service.
Contractor Abdul Kareem Kilano said the coalition made a mistake in talking to Iraqi Governing Council members and new political leaders in Fallujah. While coalition officials say such men are the most representative government in the history of Iraq, the men at this table echoed a commonly heard refrain among Iraqis: Such men are puppets and have the respect of few.
"Fallujah is a tribal city, and they should have come to the tribal leaders," he said, nodding at the sheik, leader of the second largest tribe in the city. "They could have come to an agreement."
The coalition, he said, has yet to show interest in negotiating with the sheiks or even the spiritual leaders across the country. Again and again, its actions are meant to humiliate the Iraqis as much as capture or defeat them. To an Iraqi, he said, while there was great joy in the capture of Saddam Hussein, the television footage of his medical examination sent a clear message:
"We crushed the manhood of your old leader; we can take yours as well."
"What man, faced with that, would welcome the Americans," he said. "Dignity means a great deal here, and they refuse to leave it intact."
Macbil Abdul al Jabar, a Baghdad lawyer, agreed.
"They show no respect for Islam," he said. "If they believe a criminal is hiding in a mosque, they storm in and take him. This is not done. There is a protocol that must be followed, and they ignore it."
No one is allowed to enter a mosque and remove someone by force, the men agreed. The leader of the mosque must be consulted, and after negotiations will have the man delivered outside. For a Westerner to enter the mosque is a desecration.
"They come in, wearing boots and bringing the dirt of the world into a holy place," Jabar said. "They act like savages."
Which is just what they think Westerners think of them.
Manfi said an invader must make a point of learning the culture of those he conquered. Either that, or he intends to destroy them.
As the lunch ended and diners approached the bathroom to wash hands in the order of their importance at the meal, guest first, then the sheik and so on, Jabar added that there was another aspect of Fallujah culture that the Americans must come to understand soon, at their peril.
"We are not Westerners; we do not put such a great value on life," he said. "We follow instead the path of the martyrs, and are very willing to die if it is defense of Islam, in defense of what is right. Fallujah is a first lesson in this. There will be more."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.