SAKHLAWIYA, Iraq—The fighters came to Fallujah last year with piles of cash, strange accents and a militant vision of Islam that was at once foreign and fearsome to residents emerging from nearly 30 years of Saddam Hussein's secular regime.
Yet out of custom and necessity, tribal locals offered their Arab guests sanctuary and were repaid with promises to help keep American forces out of the town. This week, with U.S. troops battling their way through the Sunni Muslim stronghold, several Fallujah residents said it had been a grave mistake to trust the foreigners who turned their humble stand against foreign occupation into a sophisticated terror campaign.
Once admired as comrades in an anti-American struggle, foreign fighters have become reviled as the reason U.S. missiles are flattening homes and turning Iraq's City of Mosques into a killing field. Their promises of protection were unfulfilled, angry residents said, with immigrant rebels moving on to other outposts and leaving besieged locals to face a superpower alone.
The fact that Iraqis are turning away from foreign terrorists, however, doesn't necessarily mean that they're turning toward the United States and Iraq's U.S.-backed interim government.
"We didn't want the occupation and we didn't want the terrorists, and now we have both," said a Fallujah construction worker who gave his name as only Abu Ehab, 30. "I didn't think the Arabs would be so vicious, and I never thought the Americans would be so unmerciful."
How foreign jihadists came to make Fallujah their base is a cautionary tale for other Iraqi cities that might receive fighters in search of a new place to plot bombings and beheadings. The most notorious foreign rebel, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al Zarqawi, is still at large despite a $25 million price on his head. The violence that's rocked several other Sunni areas since the Fallujah battle began also suggests that insurgents are broadening the battleground now that they've lost one of their havens.
American-led forces launched Operation Dawn, so named to signal a new day for Fallujah residents, to wrest control of the dusty city 40 miles west of Baghdad from rebels. U.S. military officials believed the insurgents' leaders were foreign fighters who earned their stripes in Afghanistan and were importing their guerrilla war to Fallujah.
Within the first hours of battle, top military officials predicted that most foreign insurgents, including al Zarqawi, had left the area. So far, the military has confirmed only a handful of foreign nationals among the 600 fighters it estimates have been killed in Fallujah.
"I personally believe some of the senior leaders probably have fled," Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters on Tuesday.
The Bush administration has faced criticism that it overstated the presence of foreign fighters in Fallujah to justify a prolonged occupation of Iraq, minimize Iraqi resentment of the American presence in Iraq and tie its war in Iraq to its battle against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization.
Likewise, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has blamed much of Iraq's mayhem on al Zarqawi and other foreigners, minimizing homegrown opposition to his government. He's drawn condemnation from prominent Sunni politicians and clerics who've withdrawn from his government and announced a boycott of national elections set for January.
Fallujah residents, most of them now displaced by the fighting, said there were hundreds of non-Iraqi Arabs in town before the offensive began on Monday. However, they added, the ties of brotherhood had mostly unraveled and the remaining foreign fighters had tried to intimidate residents into staying as human shields.
A rebel-allied cleric who goes by the name Sheik Rafaa told Knight Ridder that Iraqi rebels were so infuriated by the disappearance of their foreign allies that one cell had "executed 20 Arab fighters because they left an area they promised to defend."
Other residents said foreign militants wore out their welcome months ago, when they imposed a Taliban-like interpretation of Islamic law that included public floggings for suspects accused of drinking alcohol or refusing to grow beards. Women who failed to cover their hair or remove their makeup were subjected to public humiliation. Those accused of spying for Americans were executed on the spot, residents said.
The turning point for a young man named Hudaifa came the day he saw a Yemeni fighter whipping an Iraqi in a public square. He recalled his humiliation this week in a conversation with other Fallujah residents now in Baghdad. Still fearful, the men asked that their last names not be published.
"An outsider beating an Iraqi in his own town?" Hudaifa asked, outrage still in his voice. "It's such a shame for us."
His friend Amer interrupted: "But we have to respect them. They left their families to come fight with us."
When they swept into Fallujah from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and North Africa, the Arab fighters told wary residents that God favors believers who give up their homes and travel to defend Islam.
"God has preferred the strivers above the sedentary with a great reward," they quoted from the Quran, Islam's holy book. "Whoever emigrates in the cause of God will find in the earth many a refuge, wide and spacious."
The Arab visitors portrayed themselves as the Muhajireen, the storied emigrants who in ancient times journeyed with the Prophet Muhammad to the holy city of Medina in what's now Saudi Arabia. The tribes of Fallujah were cast as the Ansar, the legendary "helpers" who offered the prophet's people refuge and loyalty.
Several rebel sources confirmed that al Zarqawi had settled in Fallujah until recently, running his group, which recently said it had allied itself with al-Qaida, from farmhouses and even downtown buildings. Some even claimed to have seen al Zarqawi; others only know him as a myth spoken about in hushed conversations as Sheik Ahmed or The Emir, the leader.
In a Sept. 11 audio recording posted on the Internet, al Zarqawi boasted that Muslim holy warriors had humiliated the Americans through "the brotherhood of jihad, both Muhajireen and Ansar."
Indeed, al Zarqawi loyalists won favor during the first U.S. invasion of Fallujah, an April offensive that ended with Marines withdrawing and installing an Iraqi proxy force. Foreign fighters took credit for the outcome and invited more outsiders into the city, residents said.
"When the Marines stepped back in April, the foreigners grew stronger, so they persuaded their friends to come and help them hold the victory," said Ali Jarallah, 32, a Fallujah resident now living in a cramped camp with other displaced locals.
But then came the wave of foreign hostage-takings, many ending with gruesome beheadings broadcast for the world to see. Zarqawi also claimed responsibility for massive bombings that spilled the blood of hundreds of innocent Iraqis.
Aghast, Fallujah residents began drawing distinctions between their own fighters, who favored mainly military and police targets, and foreigners encouraged by the fear they inspired through spectacular attacks.
When the military build-up for Operation Dawn began, local tribes and Iraqi fighters wanted to negotiate with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. In several interviews, Iraqi rebels, negotiators and residents insisted that it was the foreign elements who scotched a peaceful settlement.
U.S. air strikes began pounding their city, and hopes of peace evaporated. Families fled to nearby villages. When they returned to check on their homes, many found small groups of foreign fighters camped out in their living rooms.
Abu Omar Daoud, for example, opened his front door this week to the surprise of eight militants hiding in the house that his family had fled. Only two were Iraqis, said the 35-year-old truck driver. The rest were Syrians.
Daoud said he demanded that the men leave immediately. The fighters rose, reached for their guns and told him he was being impolite. They said they'd come to "defend Iraqis and their honor and their families," Daoud recalled Thursday.
"I yelled at them, `don't you know where my family is, the ones you came to defend? We're refugees,'" Daoud said. "We are living in a school. If my house is destroyed, who will fix it?"
If he kicked them out, Daoud figured, he faced two choices: die in a U.S. air strike or be killed as a traitor by the militants. He shut his front door and walked away.
(A Knight Ridder special correspondent in Fallujah contributed to this report. He is not named for security reasons.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Fallujah