Siege of Fallujah polarizing Iraqis
Even moderate Shiite leaders say the fighting in the Sunni triangle city has moved opinion decisively against the coalition.
Few were happier than Ayatollah Imad al-Deen Awadi when Saddam Hussein was deposed. "This was a man so bad that people said they'd rather be ruled by Satan - the king of hell himself,'' says the cleric, who spent 10 years in Mr. Hussein's prisons.Skip to next paragraph
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But now Ayatollah Awadi worries that vicious fighting between US Marines and local insurgents in the Sunni triangle city of Fallujah is likely to spread across the country. "This is no longer about Fallujah," he says. "If they aren't ready for peace, it will spread and be just as hot in Ramadi, Abu Ghraib, the southern provinces, the whole country, really."
Indeed, Iraqi leaders and foreign analysts say the fighting in Fallujah, which has claimed around 700 Iraqi lives and has turned the muddled center of Iraqi public opinion - where people were ambivalent about the occupation but not actively opposed - decisively against the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority and its local allies.
"Fallujah has created a major polarization of Iraqi public opinion. There is no middle ground any more,'' says an adviser to the CPA. "Two weeks ago Iraqis wanted to see us make promises and deliver on them - rebuild, improve - but then they saw pictures of US bombs falling on a mosque in Fallujah. Now they want us out."
Haider Adil Al-Khafaji is a typical example of the hopeful Iraqis the US is losing amid the violence of April.
He was one of millions who poured into the streets when Saddam fell last April, and recalls jumping for joy when he caught the first sight of US armor rolling into Baghdad. "I swear to Allah I was happy that they got rid of this man. I was thinking they'd develop Iraq, make it a better country."
But he recalls that his growing uneasiness with the US occupation turned into something steelier a few weeks ago, when he saw the first images of civilian casualties carried from Fallujah on the Arab satellite channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. "They showed us what they really are."
The Governing Council looks to many Iraqis to now be a spent force, its credibility badly damaged by perceived close ties to the Americans. "I'm sorry to say the Governing Council is now very week and their role limited,'' says Awadi.
"I wouldn't say they're not good. But no one is listening to them anymore. They're turning to religious figures that they trust."
Compared to a week ago, violence in Iraq is in a lull. Fighting that had erupted in Fallujah, where four American security consultants were murdered, has calmed down somewhat after a temporary cease-fire was put in place.
And the Shiite uprising in cities further south, led by followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, has also quieted down. US officials and members of the Iraqi Governing Council say there's still hope these two fronts could be brought under control by peaceful means.
Wednesday, about 2,500 US forces remained in place outside the key Shiite holy city of Najaf, where Mr. Sadr and a large number of his militia have been holed up for the past week. US forces have remained on hold outside the city for fear of what could happen across the country if shots are fired there.
"Look at this as the Shiite Vatican,'' Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, in command of US forces in Najaf, told the Associated Press Tuesday. He said US troops know that firing "a single shot" inside Najaf could inflame broader Shiite resentment.
But rhetoric from both sides is as incendiary as ever, with residents of Fallujah and supporters of Sadr alleging human rights abuses by US troops, while Marine press releases dismiss opponents in Fallujah as "terrorists."
In fact, they believe it is possible that Al Qaeda's Abu Musab Zarqawi may be in the city.
President George Bush, in a rare live news conference on Tuesday, characterized violence in Iraq as akin to terrorist attacks on US interests stretching back 20 years - when a suicide bomb blasted marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 US soldiers.