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.

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."

The mood shifts

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.

"Over the last several decades, we've seen that any concession or retreat on our part will only embolden this enemy and invite more bloodshed," President Bush said.

"No one can predict all the hazards that lie ahead or the cost that they will bring. Yet, in this conflict, there is no safe alternative to resolute action."

Last-minute efforts

To be sure, there are behind the scenes negotiations. Preachers like Awadi have been working every backchannel they know to insurgents and US administrators.

Members of the Governing Council have traveled to Fallujah to mediate, and the shaky cease-fire there was extended for another 24 hours by the US Wednesday.

The US has been hoping that Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, probably the country's most respected cleric, will serve as a mediator to the Sadr standoff and convince his men to stand down.

Aids to Sadr said Wednesday that they've made proposals to the US to solve the crisis, but the content of those proposals are not yet clear.

A Sadr aide said at a press conference in Najaf Wednesday that Sadr is willing to drop conditions he had set for meeting with mediators - most importantly a demand that US troops immediately move away from Iraq - and that he will accept what top Shiite leaders led by Sistani recommend.

While that looks like a key concession, it's not clear if Sistani will deliver what the US wants. Imam Jawad al-Khalasi, a Shiite cleric close to Sistani, says the cleric has told him that he's opposed to the arrest of Sadr, but that he's also opposed to more violence by Sadr's men.

"The only options are to lift the encirclement of Fallujah, to pull troops out from around Najaf, and to cancel the arrest warrant for Sadr,'' says Mr. Khalasi. "Otherwise the occupation will continue down this road."

Khalasi spoke after a meeting between Sunni and Shiite clerics at Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque in the Sunni Adhamiya district, the main collection point for emergency medical and food aid being sent to Fallujah.

A year later

A year ago the mosque was a symbol of the split between Iraq's majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, who for over 100 years have held domestic political power. Hussein made his last public appearance outside the mosque, and when the US moved into the area, it was the sight of ferocious gun battles between Iraqis and US forces, with a tank taking out the mosque's main minaret.

At the same time, just across the river in the Shiite Khadimiya district, residents danced in the streets and scrawled graffiti denouncing Hussein. Today, it's a symbol of an unexpected alliance being forged between the two groups by their shared enmity for the US. "What happened in Fallujah made every Iraqi think that the same could happen to their town, and it united us," says Khalasi.

The Marines and coalition officials say they doubt many civilians have been killed in Fallujah and promise that their rules of engagement limit civilian casualties. "My solution is change the channel," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said earlier this week, after being asked about TV images of dead Iraqi civilians.

"The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources, that is propaganda, and that is lies."

While the fog of battle makes it difficult to get to the bottom of their differing accounts, the political impact of the television images and of what most Iraqis deeply believe can't be denied.

"You can't remove the picture of graves from the soccer field in Fallujah,'' says the CPA adviser. "But we can trying to start shifting the environment in a positive direction by focusing on economic improvements that might win people over."

Awadi says he's not entirely without hope. He acknowledges the uncompromising rhetoric from both sides, but says he has faith that big compromises will be made, particularly by the US, in the interest of peace.

"Don't believe what they say," he says. "Inside of me, I feel they'll make compromises, and my insides never lie to me."

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