Fallujans flee from US, Zarqawi fight

As talks collapsed and US forces launched intensive airstrikes, residents who had hoped for a settlement packed their bags.

The collapse of peace talks between Fallujah representatives and the Iraqi government signaled an end of hope for Ahmad Salim last Thursday. The generator mechanic loaded his tearful family into a car and escaped the embattled city of Fallujah by way of dusty farm tracks.

Already 80 percent of the city's population of 300,000 has made the same decision, he estimates, even as the intense US bombardments over the weekend gave way to relative quiet Monday.

"We were happy when the negotiations started, but were shocked when they arrested [chief Fallujah representative Sheikh Khaled] al-Jumaili," says Mr. Salim, speaking at a relative's home in Baghdad, where he has brought his wife and three children to wait out the conflict. "I think the Americans will wipe Fallujah from the map."

Salim's thinking provides a glimpse into the world view of ordinary Fallujans, who say they are torn between their wish for peace, their opposition to the US presence, and their disgust for the tactics of terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which include suicide bombings, attacks, and kidnappings of foreigners that have ended in gruesome videotaped beheadings.

Iraq's interim government has vowed to "smash" all resistance before January elec- tions. After months of ignoring Sunni strongholds like Fallujah - virtual no-go zones - US forces earlier this month began a major, rolling offensive to reclaim insurgent territory.

The US push now is to conquer Fallujah, root out the local resistance, and eject Zarqawi and his band of foreign militants. But the release Monday of Mr. Jumaili, after three days, illustrates the delicate nature of the cold-then-hot US approach. Fallujans were "surprised" at his detention, and upon release, Jumaili declared that talks would not resume.

"I think the residents of Fallujah don't want this sort of peace," the bearded cleric said after his release. "They want a real peace, not a peace that stabs in the back and strikes and destroys homes and kills women."

On Monday, Allawi told Iraq's National Council that an "olive branch" is still being offered to Fallujah representatives, but he said, "We shall not be lenient in regard to the question of maintaining security and granting security to every Iraqi."

Complicating the picture is the interim government's demand that Fallujans hand over Mr. Zarqawi. City negotiators say that task is "impossible," and claim that the Jordanian militant is not in the city.

In a declaration issued on the Internet - surprising for its timing, if not its substance - Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group on Sunday pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda's strategy of battling the "enemies of Islam." Some analysts say that the announcement was an attempt by Zarqawi to entice new recruits.

As the Americans step up aggressive tactics against the city and prospects for a negotiated settlement appear to dim, civilians tired of the conflict are fleeing.

"Violence begets violence," says Salim. "Of course we are against these terrorist operations. No Muslim would allow himself to cut someone's throat. Our holy book says: 'If you capture someone, you must feed them, even with your own food.' "

But just as Salim rejects Zarqawi's methods, he also believes that Fallujah has been unfairly singled out for attack.

"We hate anyone who comes to [occupy] our city. Most people refuse to allow foreign [fighters] to go there," says Salim. "There are many operations across Iraq - car bombs, mortars, everything - not just in Fallujah. Why do they insist [on targeting] Fallujah, and one man?"

Memories of April

Salim says his experience is common to many Fallujans, who have been rattled by weeks of nightly airstrikes and fearful expectations of an imminent US-led military siege and push on the city that promises heavy casualties on both sides.

When the US Marines engaged the Fallujah resistance for three weeks last April - in the aftermath of the killing and mutilation of four American contractors - nearly 50 marines and 600 Iraqis died. US forces have since ceded the city to the resistance. [Editor's note: Our original story reported that 100 US marines were killed in the battle for Fallujah this past April. The official US figure for April is 52 marines killed in action throughout Iraq.]

The result is new fear that is tearing at family social fabric, which Iraqis say has only hardened attitudes against American efforts.

Throughout the conversation, Salim's young face lights up only once: when describing the purchase of new clothes and schoolbooks for his two oldest children.

Classes began Oct. 1, and lasted just two days. Since then, the children have hardly slept, their parents say, kept awake by the constant crash and vibrations of explosions.

"I'm afraid because the planes bomb our district and we can't go to school," says Salim's 10-year-old son Ala. "We can't go to school for fear of attack."

Watching on TV

Salim turns up the volume of the television, as the Al Jazeera channel shows headlines of several wounded children in a Fallujah hospital, and reports that the US bombing intensified on Sunday.

Media reports cited witnesses, who said that during a nine-hour battle Sunday, US forces fired on a family trying to escape, killing all five. News agencies reported Fallujah doctors saying that four civilians were killed, including a child.

"We are just concerned with living in safety," says Salim's wife, who wears a conservative white head wrap over a black shawl. "Sure, when you leave your city you are sad. We've left a father and mother and a house and more family. We are always thinking about them."

Personal experience with civilian casualties during the latest surge of fighting, and the battles last April, convinced the Salim family to go.

"What did this teach us about the Americans?" asks Mrs. Salim. "First we thought the Americans came to liberate our country, but now our conclusion is the opposite. We know they came to destroy our country."

Questions over intelligence quality

Reversing that perception will not be easy, in a city where US and Iraqi forces are erring on the side of striking first and asking questions later.

One source close to the Iraqi leadership says that US airstrikes are "hitting a lot of people, [and] not that every one is a target. The intelligence isn't great - but there comes a point when you just go."

Though the US asserts that nearly every attack is a "precision strike" on a target related to Zarqawi's network, civilians have inevitably died is the urban environment.

Some were killed two weeks ago, when a huge air-dropped bomb landed a few hundred yards from Salim's house at 2 a.m. - a wake-up call that shook the family to their core. The children came running to their father's bed, looking for sanctuary.

"I held all my family together and said: 'We die just once in this life, not twice. Thank God, [the bombing] was far from us.'" Salim recalls. Within 30 minutes - after waiting, in case of a second US strike - Salim made his way in the dark down to the two-family house that was targeted.

He will never forget the image that greeted him, and never forgive.

"Most of them were children, all of them dead," Salim says, of the families he helped dig out of the rubble with bare hands. "When something happens, everybody runs there to help rescue, like an ambulance - maybe a friend will be [the victim] there."

Pulling together for survival

Salim says he gave blood twice that day. And there are other shortages - especially of anesthetics. The targeted house often hosts weddings and other gatherings. "Maybe the Americans thought: Why are there so many cars there? The father had a trucking business."

Whatever the reasons, the lesson for the Salim family was that their survival was at risk in Fallujah, regardless of their political views.

"I can't describe the feelings of that day," says Mrs. Salim, recalling her husband's vivid description of the bomb scene. "It's not just fear for your family - maybe your neighbor or a relative can be killed, by a misfired rocket, maybe randomly. Even walking in the street."

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