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Under the Gun in Fallouja

Times Staff Writer

This rebel city’s broad boulevards are empty now, the mosques thinly attended even for Friday prayers. Save for those too poor, too old or too sick to leave, Fallouja has been left to the insurgents and the Marines who vow to crush them.

Driven from their homes by daily American bombing, most families are camping in the surrounding countryside or, if they have the means, renting houses in Baghdad, 35 miles to the east. No one knows how many civilians are left in Fallouja. In fact, no one knows exactly what it means to be a civilian in a city where almost anyone would open his door to an insurgent, either out of sympathy or fear of reprisal.

Interviews over the last four months with residents of the Sunni Muslim stronghold offer a portrait of a community that has become a symbol of violence and rebellion but, like many symbols, is far more complicated.

Although a significant segment of the population participates in the insurgency -- militant Sunni Islamists, foreign fighters and Saddam Hussein loyalists -- many Falloujans have chafed under the militants’ rule, and some are fed up -- enough to leave for good. In between are the largest group: those who sympathize with the fighters but also fear them.

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“Roughly a quarter to a third of the people in Fallouja support what the [Iraqi] government is trying to do, but they’re afraid to say anything,” said a senior Western diplomat who declined to be identified. “Then there’s about 30-40% who don’t know what they think and are just waiting, and the remaining 20-30% will go down fighting.

“The fight,” he added, “is for the people in the middle.”

Some Fallouja natives say they hope only that the Marines’ threatened assault to end the rebels’ reign will come -- and end -- quickly so reconstruction can begin. Others want the insurgents to fight hard, to prove that they can stand up to the U.S. military and the interim government that has backed American firepower.

Falloujans who support the insurgents were much more willing to talk about their views than the fence-sitters and those who dislike the insurgents’ presence, most of whom are afraid to speak out.

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“The foreign fighters are fighting for the same thing we are fighting for -- the end of the occupation,” said Amar Mohammed, a doctor of internal medicine at Fallouja Hospital who is now without work because the hospital closed all but its emergency room and surgery facilities. “Why should we give them up to the Americans?”

Mohammed and his brother Jassim fled Fallouja when the American bombing went on for 12 hours on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. They paused only long enough to grab a change of clothes.

Now their 30 family members drift through an unfurnished house on Baghdad’s western edge. The bombing kept the schools closed, so the children have missed their classes. Instead, they race up and down the Baghdad house’s empty rooms and listen to the grown-ups denounce the Americans.

The Mohammeds view themselves as supporters of the insurgency but not active fighters. By talking to a reporter, they believed they were contributing to the “resistance” by explaining Falloujans’ views.

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During the summer, another Fallouja resident, gastroenterologist Abu Hamid, expressed similar sympathy for the militants and anger at the Americans, even though the Marines had given him a contract to renovate a clinic in the area.

Speaking at the Fallouja liaison center, a Marine outpost on the city’s edge where he was waiting to be approved for his next payment, he condemned the Americans in almost every other sentence. “What would you feel if somebody killed your brother or your son?” he asked.

“This story of Zarqawi being here is only a pretext,” he said, referring to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant reportedly holed up in Fallouja who is blamed for some of the beheadings and the most lethal insurgent bombings.

“Why are they using this excuse? What’s the goal in bombing civilian people?” he asked. “They are just after undermining the morale of the people.”

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But other Falloujan businessmen at the Marine liaison center appeared to be torn by conflicting emotions, a desire to make a living and help their community and fear of the insurgents.

Abu Saif, a thin man with a melancholy air who was rebuilding a school near the city, looked around nervously as he spoke in August. He said he feared the masked men who stalked the streets. They hate the Americans so violently, he said, that they believe that anyone who talks to them is an informer who deserves to be killed.

“Frankly, we cannot allow you to take pictures of us or give you our full names because we are afraid of the mujahedin,” he said.

But he eagerly opened a folder filled with photographs of his school project, which he had brought to show to the Marines. Holding up picture after picture, he described the school’s disrepair, explained that he had decided to rebuild almost from the ground up, then showed photos of stacks of bricks and the beginnings of each classroom.

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If only the insurgents understood that he was trying to help Iraqis, maybe they would approve, he said, anxiety in his voice. “The problem is that, when I come in here [the Marine outpost], I don’t hold a sign that says, ‘I am building a school.’ I come in here like everybody else, including those who really are agents.”

Some Falloujans have been willing to express their disapproval of the insurgents. Middle-aged women who grew up under Hussein’s secular rule -- when they could receive an education, walk the streets freely, dress in Western clothes and enjoy sports -- seemed particularly concerned about the authority of Islamic fundamentalist fighters.

Interviewed in her sparsely furnished Fallouja home in early September, one woman offered a searing account of how women’s lives had changed since the fighters rose to power.

Before the discussion, her husband, a government worker in the Iraqi Finance Ministry, admonished the reporter not to ask his wife about politics and to avoid publishing the family name. But for women in Fallouja, the line between politics and life is thin indeed. The Islamic militants who now run the city have focused much of their energy on censuring women’s behavior in the name of eliminating “vice.”

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Bushraa, 41, a mother of nine who eschewed wearing the head covering known as the hijab at home, even with a guest present, said the atmosphere started becoming restrictive in June, when armed Islamists, many of them teenagers, began to roam the streets.

The men masked the lower halves of their faces, Bushraa said, making it difficult to know whether they were strangers or neighbors. Only their accents gave some of them away as Arabs from outside Iraq.

She began to hear stories about militants striking women for small perceived infractions. Her teenage daughters encountered the insurgents on their way to school and refused to leave the house without a black head-to-toe abaya.

“I only have one [abaya], and I wanted to take my daughter to the market. She said, ‘Mother, we have to buy another one.’ I usually go out like this with just a scarf,” Bushraa said, gesturing to her colorful housedress. “I didn’t even wear hijab before, but now I’m afraid.”

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Bushraa said she no longer feels free to go alone to a friend’s house, for fear that the mujahedin will humiliate her in public. They scold women wearing makeup; they have even targeted beauty salons, she said.

“I have a close friend who owned a salon. She has a very good reputation. And she got a threat saying they would destroy it. One of her salons they destroyed three times. Each time she rebuilt it. The last time, they threatened to kill her in it.”

Like some Fallouja women, including her friend whose shop was bombed, Bushraa is a quiet rebel. Her friend set up the salon equipment in her kitchen, and Bushraa and her friends swathed themselves in abayas, walked swiftly through the rubble-filled streets and slipped through her back door to have their hair done.

“My friend’s husband has a heart problem,” she said. “She’s responsible for the family [income]. The mujahedin don’t understand that.”

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But that was in September. Since then, as the foreign fighters have continued to flow into the city -- and the Americans settled into a daily routine of bombing -- Bushraa’s family has packed up and moved to Syria.


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