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Sense of dread hangs over Fallujah as battle with U.S. troops looms

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Rebels dressed as Iraqi police manned checkpoints in this insurgent-controlled city Monday as U.S. forces continued to mass outside in preparation for an assault everyone is certain will come soon.

Merchants shuttered their shops. Residents fled. Medical workers set up a field clinic in case clashes sever the ambulance route to the main hospital.

The message was the same from mosque loudspeakers, photocopied pamphlets and whispers on street corners: The Americans are coming for a showdown.

Fallujah slipped from government control six months ago, when U.S. Marines pulled out of the city and installed a proxy Iraqi force that soon proved ineffective and was infiltrated by insurgents. Regaining control of the city is crucial to weakening the deadly Sunni Muslim insurgency and smoothing the road to national elections scheduled for January, American and Iraqi officials say.

Peace negotiations have reached an impasse, by all indications. The Iraqi government demands that residents turn over the Islamic extremists taking refuge in Fallujah, while intermediaries complain that the demands are impossible to meet. So families have fled and the men who remain sit cross-legged in mosques as imams tell them they're fighting for their religion and homeland.

The few moderate clerics left in the city have been silenced by death threats. One influential imam reportedly fled for Syria after his sermons calling for fighters to cede control of the city angered the Mujahedeen Shura, the council of insurgents that governs Fallujah.

"If the government insists on having a war, then we will fight," said a young cleric known only as Sheik Mohamed, the imam of the popular al Badawi mosque. "This city has seen lots of battles, lots of bombings, and we don't want more. There are conditions, however, that we cannot meet."

Newsstands have disappeared, so updates on the seemingly imminent military offensive come mainly from Arabic-language satellite channels and leaflets passed out after prayers at Fallujah's many mosques. Encouraged by the deaths of eight U.S. Marines in a car bombing Saturday, guerrillas issued statements with wild claims of similar successful attacks, none of which was confirmed by the American forces in vast Anbar province.

A militant group called Mohammed's Army claimed to have ambushed and killed 11 Marines trying to enter Fallujah and vowed to post photos of the dead on the Internet. Another, the Lions of God and Victorious Ali, claimed that one of its fighters shot down an American helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, and added that the rebel was "martyred" by return fire. U.S. military spokesmen dismissed both claims.

"We will show the Americans new and innovative suicide operations," the Lions of God statement warned. "It's not a car bombing. It's not the usual attack. The Americans can expect a variety of new operations."

Suhail al Abdali, a Fallujah fighter in his 30s who wouldn't identify the group he'd joined, said there "absolutely" were foreign Islamic extremists joining the fight. However, he emphasized, most Fallujah militants are Iraqis who are wary of the foreign extremist elements but bound by custom to accept offers of battlefield help from men they consider brothers in Islam.

"Didn't the Americans bring with them the British and the Italians? Well, we have multinational forces, too," al Abdali said with a laugh. "The Americans themselves resisted the British when they tried to control them, so how dare anyone ask us why we fight? Resistance is legal."

Al Abdali, sporting the de facto guerrilla uniform of a bushy beard and long traditional gown, sat with other rebels in a mosque in north Fallujah. Many of the men said they started attending the mosque this week based on rumors that U.S. forces would invade from the north. They said they wanted to be in place, and prepared.

"They might enter the city, but that would be just one battle, not the end of the war," al Abdali said. "They will pay the price with the blood of American sons who came to occupy Iraq. They won't take Fallujah unless they fight street to street, house to house."


(This story was reported by a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent in Fallujah whose name was withheld for security reasons and written by Hannah Allam in Baghdad.)


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