US antiguerrilla campaign draws Iraqi ire

Searches for weapons in Fallujah intensify as a nationwide weapons amnesty ends.

The US military conducted a massive weapons raid in residential neighborhoods in this city west of Baghdad, part of a new campaign to cut down on the frequent guerrilla attacks on United States troops and to start the long process of rebuilding.

But there are signs that operations such as this one, code-named "Spartan Scorpion," may be creating as many problems as it solves. Here in Fallujah, lately the hub of anti-US resistance, locals say they are seeing far too few signs of promised reconstruction - and far too many of an outright occupation.

"The U.S army has changed from being a liberator to an offensive occupier," says Fawzi Shafi, editor of a new weekly newspaper here, Sot il-Hurriye, or the Voice of Freedom. Mr. Shafi says that two months ago, he welcomed the US troops; he was no fan of Saddam Hussein. Now, brusque house searches by US troops is earning the US new opponents every day - including Mr. Shafi - and may be feeding a nascent resistance movement.

"Last Friday, they came into my house with about 25 troops. They searched during breakfast and scared the children," he says. "They insulted us by putting us [face-down] on the floor in front of our women."

Moreover, members of an ad-hoc "city congress" contend, the US is relying on the same tribal hierarchy that Saddam Hussein used to control the country - vastly different from the democracy they expected.

The weapons crackdown, code-named "Spartan Scorpion," comes on the heels of "Operation Peninsula Strike," a three-day operation that ended Saturday. The two-pronged offensive is aimed capturing or killing pro-Baathist guerrillas and "terrorists who try to hinder rebuilding efforts," according to a statement released by the US Central Command. The US-led coalition forces declared a two-week long weapons amnesty program that came to an end this weekend. Only a small number of arms were actually turned in: about 700 guns.

Far more Iraqis, it seems, including Shafi's family, put their weapons into hiding.

A few nights later, he complains, gunmen came to his brother's house nearby, took the family's television and money, and slipped off with ease.

"We couldn't do anything because we didn't have weapons with us," he says. "What would Americans do if it happened to them?"

The weapons collection policy is supposed to be aimed at heavier weaponry, as well as getting Iraqis to leave their guns at home. But most Iraqis seem to know someone who fell victim to crime because they were unarmed. Until the security situation improves, most Iraqis say, the weapons' seizures and raids are only making people feel more vulnerable.

Six weeks ago, President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq a mission accomplished. But in the past two weeks, US soldiers have been targeted in ambushes with increasing frequency. About 40 US soldiers have been killed in various attacks since Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed on April 9, the bulk of them in the areas west and north of Baghdad, primarily Sunni Arab regions considered to be supportive of Mr. Hussein's regime-on-the-run.

In what the US Central Command called "textbook-style, joint operation" of air and land forces, US forces killed 70 people at a terrorist training camp in western Iraq on Thursday, and another 27 people who ambushed a US patrol north of Baghdad Friday.

US military officials say that they do not believe the attacks are the work of an organized resistance movement. But the new mayor of Fallujah says that the city has become a magnet for people disillusioned with US promises to liberate Iraq. These include Baathist loyalists, as well as unemployed Iraqi military personnel who lost their jobs after US administrator L. Paul Bremer disbanded the military.

"Everyone who feels disappointed by the Americans is coming here. The people who want to make trouble come to Fallujah to disrupt things in the city," says Mayor Taha Bidawi Hamid. Moreover, he is already dealing with his third rotation of US forces in the city, he says. "Each time a new group comes in, we lose focus because they don't know how to deal with things."

In this post-war power vacuum, a group of 15 Fallujah professionals decided to form a "city congress" to help administer the city's affairs. But members of the congress - a mix that includes professors, journalists, engineers, teachers and retired military officers - say that US officials have ignored them and instead turned to the tribal sheikhs who are more powerful by birthright more than merit.

"We think the sheikhs represent themselves only, not us," says Sa'adoon Aziz, a member of the council. "People are sensitive to this. They don't want the same people who represented us under Saddam to represent us now."

The fact that Mr. Bremer is going to appoint a political council to advise his administration - elections won't be called until later, after a constitution is drafted and passed in a referendum - further raises concerns that the US is not interested in empowering average people.

"The Americans have the same mentality as the British did when they occupied Iraq, even though that was at the start of the 20th century and now we're in the 21st century" says Mukhlis Shia Khanfer, another member of the congress and a professor of business at Al-Anbar University. "Instead of meeting with the intellectuals and the technocrats, they only speak to the heads of the tribes."

Even that tactic may not be making great headway.

"The sheikhs do not have 100 percent control," says Hussein Ali, an aide to the mayor. "To solve the problem of these attacks, they have to form a government and give people jobs. Then we'll know what they're really here for. "

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