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Iraqis call for holy war against U.S. after fatal explosion at Mosque

FALLUJAH, Iraq—An explosion late Monday in a mosque compound in Fallujah that killed 10 Iraqis, including the mosque's spiritual leader, has enraged the city's residents and prompted calls for a holy war against the United States.

People in Fallujah said Tuesday that American forces launched a missile into the mosque, a charge the U.S. military denied.

While Fallujah, about an hour west of Baghdad, has been a hot spot of fighting between residents and U.S. troops for months, the anti-American rhetoric and threats of violent response are reaching a new peak, with calls for Islamic jihad, or holy war.

Elsewhere in Iraq, violence continued. In Baghdad, two rocket-propelled grenade attacks on American troops in Humvee patrols injured a total of six soldiers and killed one Iraqi interpreter. U.S. troops shot and killed two Iraqis in a vehicle that didn't stop at a checkpoint that was set up to protect a visiting delegation of American senators.

To the north, the chief of Saddam Hussein's tribe in Tikrit was reported dead after a shooting Sunday, in what may have been a revenge killing. The sheik had spoken out recently against the deposed dictator, who remains missing.

In Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian in Iraq, remained upbeat. "Day by day, conditions in Iraq continue to improve," he said. "Freedom becomes more and more entrenched, and the dark days of the Baathist regime are further and further back in people's memories."

But in Washington, U.S. officials said Bremer was asking for more troops and dozens more American officials to help bring order to Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was reviewing the request, said the U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Bremer's request underscores the deepening difficulties his small civilian staff and some 158,000 American-led troops are having maintaining order and restoring basic services in some parts of Iraq. It also conflicts with his upbeat assessment Tuesday and similarly rosy public statements by Rumsfeld and President Bush.

A delegation of U.S. senators in the capital city, led by Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., pledged Tuesday to keep troops in Iraq until "freedom replaces the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and his regime."

At the checkpoint where the two Iraqis were killed, an angry crowd gathered, yelling that revenge would be swift.

"Every Iraqi is worth more than 40 Americans," shouted Salah Kuder, his face dripping sweat as he gestured angrily with his fist. "If they think we're afraid of their guns, we're not. This is not Afghanistan. Are they here to help us or are they here to kill us?"

The explosion late Monday at Fallujah's al Hassan mosque decimated a small building that contained the sleeping quarters, office and classroom of the mosque's imam, the Muslim equivalent of a minister. Most locals interviewed said a U.S. military helicopter or plane fired a missile at the building. A U.S. Army commander in the city denied those charges, saying the explosion came from within the structure.

"There was no American attack on this mosque," said Col. Joseph Disalvo of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which was called into the town to bring peace after several incidents of ambush and gunfire on the 82nd Airborne Division.

The lack of a large crater or burn marks on the side of the mosque proved that no missile was launched, Disalvo said.

Blood was splattered against the wall of the mosque, which adjoined the building. Volumes of the Koran in a heap were burned and smeared with blood.

The imam, Laith Khalil, was teaching a small group of students about 10:50 p.m. when the boom came, said Abu Omar, who leads the call to prayer for the mosque.

Khalil was found in the street and taken to a hospital in Baghdad, where he soon died, according to medical staff.

Those closer to the source of the explosion were torn to pieces. Fragments of intestines were wrapped in blankets in front of the mosque Tuesday morning before being placed in coffins.

"We heard the noises of aircraft over us," said Omar, who said he was on the grounds of the mosque at the time. "There was a light in the air, and a rocket fell and hit the classroom."

As Omar spoke softly under a thatch roof, which hung over a series of prayer mats, hundreds of angry men milled about.

"It is a war against Islam," said Annis Abdul Sater. "Not only the Iraqi people but all the Muslims in the world will fight the Americans."

Sater said he was at the April demonstration in Fallujah when American soldiers shot and killed more than 12 residents. At the time, he said, he thought the troops may have been targeting the crowd—which was protesting the U.S. presence in town—because it was a group of Muslims, but he decided to reserve judgment. The explosion Monday night, he said, made up his mind: The Americans must be killed, he said, because they are the enemies of Islam.

Other agreed.

"If they kill one of us, we will kill 10 of them," said Munir Abad, the veins on his face bulging with rage. "We will win. By Allah's will, we will win."

Holding a Koran with blood on its creases, Hamza Hussein pumped the book in the air and shouted, "There is no God but Allah. America is the enemy." A crowd of men and children, fists raised, screamed back, "There is no God but Allah. America is the enemy."

Many at the mosque said the Americans targeted Khalil because he'd spoken harshly about U.S. troops at Friday prayers.

Anwar Sayid, who attends the mosque, said Khalil hadn't been inciting violence. "The imam wasn't speaking of jihad; the jihad was already here," Sayid said.

Fallujah's mayor, who is supported by U.S. troops and regarded with suspicion by residents, said Khalil was a radical. "The sheik of this mosque, he spoke of jihad," said Mayor Taha Alwani, who was speaking before word of Khalil's death arrived. "Those people killed are innocent, but this sheik is a fanatic."

Alwani wouldn't say who he thought was behind the destruction of the building.

Standing outside Alwani's office, Disalvo, the Army commander, said he remained hopeful that a majority of the city's residents supported the coalition presence. The relationship, he said, is "for the most part, improved every day."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Dana Hull in Baghdad, Iraq, and Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)


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

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