Still under fire, US troops shifting to relief effort

US forces in Fallujah offer food, first aid.

The men from Fallujah gathered on the red carpet inside their mosque to vent their anger. Instead of feeling liberated, they said the violence of the US offensive to take control of their city - in the heart of Iraq's insurgency - has deepened their hatred.

These men came to collect food from US and Iraqi forces at the Hadra Mohamadiya Mosque, and were secretly given a swab test for recent explosives handling, something that might mark them as insurgents.

They were clean. But the bitter tone of their remarks sheds light on what drives Iraq's insurgency, and how hard it will be to stamp out.

"When you captured Saddam Hussein, I was very happy, and not fighting Americans, but you used your guns, and your military debased me," says Mahmoud al-Samarrai, who says his house was hit by US airstrikes. "I am very angry. I hate all Christians, because you killed my family, my city, and my mosques."

As US and Iraqi commanders on the ground debate the effectiveness of the battle so far, a key issue is becoming how to address such anger and when to ease the military operations. Senior Iraqi officers argue that it is time to shift from pure military actions to rebuilding. US Marine and Army officers - who launched a blistering tank attack Wednesday in southern Fallujah - say they are still under fire, and so the warfighting is not yet done.

"We're in this gray area between decisive operations and stability and support," says Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, commander of the 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, which controls northeast Fallujah. "Unfortunately, we're still finding huge weapons caches, and people holed up in houses fighting us."

US officials plan to pay for the rebuilding of much of the city, including cash for damage to houses like Mr. Samarrai's. Samarrai's world view does not include the insurgents, who often used Fallujah's mosques for weapons caches, and its minarets as sniper positions.

The marines say their experience last April, when they invaded Fallujah to quell an uprising and were ordered to halt before they could take half the city - has taught them the risks of pulling back. Since April, insurgents and Islamist cells loyal to Al Qaeda affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, regrouped and turned the city into the primary base of the insurgency.

Completion involves "cleaning out remaining pocket of resistance; all the explosive are truly a safety hazard," says Marine Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, 1st Marine Division commander, in an interview.

"Wednesday, an insurgent was killed putting an [explosive] in a refrigerator. What I'm afraid of is that civilians will come back and find booby traps in their homes. So we're going to get rid of as much of that as we can."

"The Iraqi [top brass] are concerned about public perception, they want an amnesty for these people," says Maj. Mike Zacchea, an adviser and liaison to Iraqi forces at the Hadra mosque. "The Marines Corps way of fighting is to break the will [of the enemy] to fight."

The Iraqis say that, "if you've got 90 percent done, and insist on [militarily] going after the remaining 10 percent - every last one - you could lose that 90 percent we gained," says Major Zacchea.

That formulation resonates with US officers, though their assessment of the Fallujah battlefield is different. "I think we are nowhere near 90 percent [complete], but more like 50 percent," says Ramos.

"I'd say we've eliminated 50 percent of the weapons caches, and 50 percent of the insurgents," he adds, "My marines are still getting shot at and rocketed; that means there is more work to do."

Wednesday, violence continued across Iraq's Sunni-dominated heartland. A suicide car bomber drove into a US convoy during clashes with militants that killed 10 people. In Baghdad, a car bomb hit a civilian convoy along Baghdad's airport road. South of Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed two Iraqi National Guardsmen and wounded three others. And in the central city of Baqouba, insurgents attacked police headquarters again.

The US military reported that Mosul, the scene of recent heavy fighting, was calmer, saying that it had secured police stations and other areas targeted by insurgents.

F allujah is an especially difficult case when it comes to winning hearts and minds. "The Iraqi [forces] repeatedly say: The people of Fallujah are different, more religious, zealous, and they are more stubborn and difficult to convince," says Ramos.

Among the most difficult may be those in the Hadra mosque, though they willingly came to accept food aid that began on Monday. Marines evacuated several medical cases to the Jordan hospital, including a 9-month-old baby and an elderly man who had refused to eat for three days.

"All of them are Muslims, and most of them are [extreme] Wahhabis, so they become very nervous in this situation, and very angry," says Adnan Naji, a captain in the Iraqi Army and a doctor who set up a makeshift clinic in the mosque that by Wednesday had treated 62 cases. Besides the swab test, Dr. Naji says he looks for freshly shaved men with soft skin - a sign of the long beard favored by insurgents.

Wednesday, just a handful of Iraqis trickled in, carrying white surrender flags as they moved cautiously along the wide avenue beside the mosque.

That number may have dipped after news got out that all men who had visited the previous two days had been given the swab test. Firing a gun, or handling weaponry or spent cartridges on the ground - Fallujah is carpeted with the brass - is enough to give a positive reading.

Of the 117 men tested Tuesday, 46 turned up positive. All were detained, and are likely to be held for 14 days; six were kept locally, to be "escorted" home by Iraqi and US troops, for a search. Three were taken to their homes Wednesday, which are near the mosque. Troops searched the houses, but found nothing.

"I hope we can meet under different circumstances one day, and have tea," said the US officer as he left two of the men on their doorstep. They were clearly relieved, as if they couldn't believe they were free.

One man went into his house, and brought out several sets of ornate prayer beads - brought by his brother from the Islamic holy city of Mecca - as gifts for the Americans. "You are welcome," the man said with a smile. "You are always welcome."

Material from the wires was used in this report.

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