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Iraqis in unruly city want U.S. troops to leave

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Friday's sermon at the mosque outside the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's makeshift compound captured the confusion that encircles this unruly city, which is still seething over the invasion of American troops.

In the space of a few minutes, Sheik Nazar counseled worshippers to be ready to fight but then told them to be calm, for now, and go back to work.

"Don't listen to the intruders who are misleading the people and causing the clashes between us and the Americans," the sheik said, as if confirming the U.S. belief that Baath Party secularists loyal to Saddam Hussein are fomenting trouble.

Then, his voice echoing over U.S. forces poised nearby in full battle dress, the sheik urged worshippers to adopt a patient jihad. When the Algerians waged war to end their colonialism, he said, "it took 1 million martyrs to drive out the French."

Four days after U.S. troops first opened fire on protesters in this 200,000-strong Sunni suburb of Baghdad, eventually killing 16 and wounding more than 50 Iraqis, the violence finally seemed to subside outside the U.S. military's main compound.

But no one knew why or could say how long it might last.

"There's blood now between us and the Americans, and revenge is a principle here," warned Halaf Abed Shebib, a tribal chief dressed in a flowing white gown and headdress. Shebib claims 50,000 Sunni followers and says they all agree with him that the Americans must leave.

"We can't control the young people. They are filled with rage. They want revenge—just like the people in Palestine can't stop their young people from doing suicide bombings," he said of the clashes, which took on a new twist Thursday when someone rolled two grenades into the Army's compound, wounding seven soldiers.

Inside Cavalry headquarters, Capt. Bren Workman vowed U.S. forces would do "whatever it takes" to make the city safe enough to let Iraqis get on with their lives.

He blamed the violence on "outside factions that don't want to see reconstruction begin," but said he had no insight to offer on who they might be, adding that the identity of the troublemakers was irrelevant—be they tribal sheiks, mullahs or "the PTA."

Friday, they delivered their message from columns of U.S. armor that rolled through the streets, using loudspeakers to compete in Arabic with the prayers.

"American forces are here to maintain discipline and peace," a voice inside an armored personnel carrier said as it passed Sheik Nazar's al-Hedaya Mosque. "Don't throw stones on the American troops."

Meanwhile, inside the municipal headquarters next door, the newly self-installed mayor, a former exile, said he was trying to calm the crowds—but, he said, the Americans needed to get out of his city. "We're not refusing the American presence around the city as a security measure," said Taha Bidawi al Alwani. "But we refuse the American presence inside the city and the streets."

Alwani then triumphantly announced he had negotiated an agreement that the U.S. forces would soon withdraw—a claim that Workman swiftly rejected.

But both sides agreed on one thing Friday: There was no violence for the first day this week. "By all accounts it is calm today and we read the tea leaves," Workman said, "we take into account all we possibly can in regards to a successful accomplishment of our mission to stabilize the area."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.