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Images of civilian dead, wounded in Fallujah become anti-American rallying point

BAGHDAD, Iraq—On television, the children are unmoving, dead in the streets, blood pooling and spreading underneath them.

On radio, announcers accuse Americans of attacking helpless civilians, not even allowing them to move for treatment of their bullet wounds.

In newspapers, the stories ask if the deaths of perhaps hundreds of innocent civilians is not a greater crime than the horrific deaths and mutilations of four Americans.

For the past week, those have been the images, sounds and words that Iraqis have been taking in as everything here has focused on Fallujah.

In this one week, Fallujah has come to symbolize for Iraqis everything that is wrong with the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

"When the four Americans were murdered, almost all Iraqis were horrified, and understood that the reaction must be strong," said Iraqi journalist Dhrgam Mohammed Ali, referring to the killing March 31 of four private security guards whose bodies were then mutilated, dragged through Fallujah and hung from a bridge.

"But now, we see women and children dying, trying to escape and not being allowed to, and many stop remembering the dead Americans. Instead, they wonder why four dead Americans are worth so much, while hundreds of dead Iraqis are worth so little."

There is no official toll of dead and wounded Iraqis in Fallujah since the U.S. Marines began trying to take control of the town four days ago. Estimates range as high as 450 deaths and more than 1,000 wounded.

But U.S. officials acknowledge that many of the dead were innocent civilians, and Fallujah, a town of 300,000 according to residents, but only 110,000 according to a year-old medical census, by Wednesday was a cause across much of Iraq.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt on Saturday again defended American tactics, saying that Marines had been fired upon from mosques and from crowds containing women and children. He said Marines had tried to avoid civilian casualties, firing back in dangerous situations only in self-defense.

Saturday, as residents started escaping the city, they told tales that are sure to inflame. The residents refused to give their names, saying that even talking to an American right now could endanger their lives.

But one, a doctor, said: "I was in my home for days, unable to leave, even to treat the sick, for fear of being shot. One morning, I decided I had to make it to the hospital, but just before I left, I saw my neighbor walk from his house. An American sniper shot him, once in the head. I was afraid to go out to him, to treat him. I watched him die."

Another, a young woman, asked why the Americans had to take out their anger on a whole city.

"They are angry, yes, but we were not all guilty, and yet we were all punished. Every time they shot another man, his brother, his father, picked up a weapon and swore to kill Americans."

Kimmitt denied that the Marines had engaged in collective punishment.

But the damage had already been done.

"On one level, many believe that two groups of foreigners have invaded to ruin a chance for peace, both Americans and the foreign fighters," said Iraqi journalist Abbas Ali Saki. "But also, more commonly, Iraqis are looking at the images of Fallujah, and wondering if they're looking at the future of the rest of Iraq, should we ever anger the United States."


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