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Refugees from Fallujah say U.S. attacks fueling ill-will among Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Jamal Mahmood piled 11 relatives into his 23-year-old sedan—four of them stuffed in the trunk—and fled the fierce clashes in Fallujah between U.S. Marines and Iraqi insurgents this week.

Now his relatives live with several other families in a dilapidated bomb shelter in a sympathetic western neighborhood of Baghdad, hoping the violence will subside so they can go home.

Fallujah, already a hot spot for fighting with American troops, took a dramatic turn for the worse last week when Marines launched an offensive operation there after the grisly ambush of four American civilian contractors whose bodies were mutilated.

While many Iraqis were appalled by the mutilations, they were upset by what happened next, when hundreds of Iraqis were killed in fighting that also claimed the lives of 27 Marines. As the body count rises, anger against the United States is growing among ordinary Iraqis, who increasingly believe that the U.S. mission isn't one of security and democracy, but rather one of hostility.

The Baghdad neighborhood, where Mahmood and his relatives are living, is Sunni Muslim, as is Fallujah, and the walls along many streets are riddled with anti-American graffiti declaring, "long live the resistance" and "Fallujah will be the graveyard of Americans."

Some refugees share the sentiments.

Mahmood called the latest downing of an American helicopter one of the "miracles made by God."

It's not hard to understand why Iraqis are upset at the blunt impact of U.S. military activities.

In Fallujah, residents buried their dead in two soccer fields and then in a third burial site with heavy equipment carving long trenches because the ground was too hard for men to dig holes, said Mahmood, 41.

"They bury the dead one beside the other," he said.

Mahmood, whose nephew was killed by gunfire, and other refugees painted a grim picture of life in Fallujah, with residents fearful of being shot by U.S. forces if they ventured into the streets. Some no longer felt safe in their houses.

"There were no resistance (fighters) in my home," complained Um Karim, 44, who said her house was damaged by coalition attacks. Her family left Fallujah by foot for nearby Abu Ghraib and arrived at the Baghdad shelter on Tuesday after a week of travel.

The refugees at the shelter on Wednesday were mainly women and children, with a few men. Though the one-story concrete building is large, the refugees live in a dimly lit corridor. They survive mainly on sacks of potatoes and rice stored in spaces between support pillars. When the power goes out, they rely on a lantern.

A blind man, Sajeen, 21, sat on the floor and quietly rubbed prayer beads.

His great-uncle, Rabee Al Daraje, 57, said Sajeen's mother died last week from an illness. When she took ill, her family couldn't find an ambulance, so men pulled her on a cart to the hospital, Daraje said. By the time they arrived, it was too late.

Daraje, a former civil defense employee, has lived in the shelter for most of 10 years. When the war started last year, he moved out of the shelter and in with family members in Fallujah. He had returned to the shelter once already to find his possessions looted or burned. But with the danger so high in Fallujah, he brought his relatives to shelter.

The refugees have been welcomed by the neighborhood, Daraje said, and several families have been taken in by local residents.

But the refugees haven't escaped the violence.

As several refugees spoke with a reporter, there was a loud explosion in the neighborhood followed by gunfire. The refugees scrambled into the shelter entrance for cover until the shooting stopped.

"We are in Baghdad, not Fallujah," Mahmood said after ducking into the building. "So what is the situation in Fallujah?"

What normally is a 45-minute ride from Fallujah to Baghdad took Mahmood nine hours on Monday. He said most of the main roads into the city of 250,000 people had been sealed off by the Marines and he had to take a rugged back road to get out.

Mahmood, an accountant who'd been forced to drive a taxi for less than $17 a month to support his family, said he tried to return Tuesday to help more relatives leave but was blocked by American troops. He said medical supplies also weren't being allowed into Fallujah.

Coalition officials have said they aren't taking punitive measures against the residents of Fallujah and that their goal is to root out insurgent forces with precise action.

Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt on Tuesday blamed the surging violence on foreign fighters, terrorists and a small number of Iraqis who are working with them.

Mahmood scoffed at that assertion.

"Only the people of Fallujah are resisting, and it is their right to fight," he said.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+refugees

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