Crowded together on sagging couches in the Baghdad living room of a distant cousin, Umm Samir and 25 other female relatives and their children clamored Saturday to tell their stories of U.S. troops’ weeklong siege of Fallouja.
The women, some of whom had just fled the city that morning, spoke of small victories, such as having stockpiled enough water, and painful defeats, like the sight of neighbors shot dead in the street and ambulances pocked with bullet holes. But above all, their accounts suggested empathy with the insurgents who had been fighting tenaciously to keep Marines from taking control of their city of 300,000 people.
“The mujahedin are our sons,” said Umm Samir, 62, who has lived in Fallouja for 37 years. “I would become a mujahedin myself. I can’t bear to see Fallouja being bombed and do nothing about it. It makes my blood boil.”
Long a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein’s regime, Fallouja has been extremely volatile since the beginning of the occupation. But in recent days, U.S. military commanders have portrayed the citizens of Fallouja as victims of the insurgents, unsupportive of their efforts to drive American soldiers out of their city and all of Iraq.
“We are confronting and killing the evil-doers who have a grasp on this city,” Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, who has overseen the military activity in Fallouja, said Saturday. “I like to think that the 60,000 people who left agree that the terrorists and criminals in their city have to be eliminated.”
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said earlier in the week: “We are horrified by the fact that the insurgents are trying to conduct their operations amongst the population that doesn’t support them.”
Those who have fled Fallouja, however, painted a picture of a city made unbearable by U.S. military tactics, and a populace ever more sympathetic to the armed uprising.
After months of house searches, arrests and slayings by U.S. forces targeting insurgents, the city was cordoned off by Marines last Sunday. Under siege, Fallouja has been battered by bombs and strafed with gunfire. Thousands of women, children and disabled people have streamed out in the last two days.
Families who reached Baghdad appeared in shock. Some were angry. Some wept. Others displayed no emotion at all.
Umm Marwan, 32, a mother of six, was cooking a stew of green beans and rice with meat when she heard the first bomb explode April 4. It was hardly surprising, since bombs and gunfire had been a fact of life in her neighborhood of Jolaan, an insurgent hotbed, for months.
But worried that water might be cut off, she filled bucket after bucket, and dispatched her husband to the market to buy food.
At nightfall, she said, bombing began in earnest, rocking the house and lighting up the clear desert sky. With each blast, she tried to determine whether the explosions were moving closer or farther away.
Her children wailed, terrified of even lying down in bed.
“I didn’t know which one to hold,” she said.
“At first I thought this was the usual business, the mujahedin attack the Americans and the Americans attack back, but on Monday we realized it was different, we had a night full of bombing and we started to think about leaving,” Umm Marwan said.
Her daughter Marwa, 13, was one of just three girls in her class who braved the streets to go to school April 4 because she did not want to miss her Arabic grammar exam. “We all thought the Americans were just bombing to frighten us and the mujahedin so that the mujahedin would not attack anymore,” Marwa said.
Marines vowed to pacify Fallouja about 10 days ago, after four U.S. security contractors were attacked by insurgents and a mob burned and mutilated their bodies.
In recounting the incident, Marwa indicated that it was the crowd’s behavior -- and not that of the killers -- that she found questionable.
“The mujahedin killed them and left them alone,” she said. “It was some of the mob that was there that pulled them apart.”
Some of the women with whom she fled, though, said even the mutilation was understandable.
“Those people who dragged the Americans’ bodies through the streets, they certainly had had a brother or a father killed by the Americans; they had burnt hearts,” Umm Samir said.
It wasn’t always like that. When Americans first came to Fallouja, Umm Dahlia said, they smiled and waved at children and handed out candy. Residents were wary but curious, the women said.
Soon, though, Americans were kicking down doors as they searched house to house for insurgents. From the youngest to the oldest, they said, the community turned.
“You see my little son? He’s 2 years old, when he sees [the Americans] he starts spitting,” said Umm Dahlia, sitting next to Umm Samir. “I didn’t teach him to do that.”
As the fight for Fallouja intensified last week, residents’ accounts suggested that their sympathy for the insurgents had strengthened and they had lost any remaining faith in the Americans.
Numerous witnesses said U.S. forces made it impossible for many of the injured to reach the city’s main hospitals, shot up ambulances and stopped people from burying their dead at the main cemetery; Marines have said the insurgents took up positions in mosques and used ambulances to ferry in weapons and fighters.
“You see when the mujahedin saw all the attacks, many, many men began becoming mujahedin,” Marwa said. “The place is now filled with mujahedin; there is not a neighborhood in Fallouja that doesn’t have mujahedin.”
While the Americans blast instructions over loudspeakers, the local fighters have benefited from a dialogue with residents.
On Wednesday, insurgents came to Umm Marwan’s door and told her to leave because they were taking up positions in the house behind hers and planned to fire on the Marines. That, the insurgents anticipated, would draw retaliatory fire and there was the chance that rockets could hit Umm Marwan’s house.
The family rushed to find somewhere to go, but many relatives’ houses were full. When the family explained the situation to the insurgents, they agreed to move their position.
Such small incidents create bonds and build support for the insurgents’ cause. “We feel safe when we see the mujahedin,” said Marwa as she adjusted her pale green headscarf.
The women believe that the insurgents did them one last favor Friday as they tried to flee. While they were trapped in a cramped minibus on a back road leading out of town, a gunfight broke out behind them. Ahead was an American roadblock. They had begun to despair that they would never get through.
Then, a rapid succession of blasts ripped into several American vehicles nearby. The soldiers at the roadblock rushed to help their comrades.
“When they were looking the other way, we were able to drive through,” Marwa said.
Asked if she could imagine a cordial relationship with the Americans some time in the future, Umm Marwan’s look turned disdainful.
“At one house they bombed they killed a family of 25 -- the entire family except for a 1 1/2-year-old boy,” she said.
“How can I look at people who have done that?”
Special correspondent Raheem Salman contributed to this report.