After vote, Sunni bitterness stirs

Sunni refugees displaced from Fallujah are struggling to come to terms with Iraq's post-election political reality.

Far from the counting halls where buoyant Iraqi election workers are tabulating votes, one of the most dispossessed groups in Iraq is nursing bitterness.

The anger of the Sunni refugees still displaced from Fallujah - the insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad seized by US forces last November - is a window into why many Sunnis still back anti-American militants, and why defeating the insurgency will not be easy.

"The oriental [Eastern] man, when he loses his patience, maybe he will make his son a bomb, and send him to America," says a hard-line Sunni sheikh, who runs a refugee center in Baghdad and asked not to be named.

"I advise the Americans to keep their troops out of the cities, and keep their victory in the [2003] war," says the young sheikh, sitting in one of his rooms at the Al-Mustafa mosque, a pale blue-tiled dome on the campus of Baghdad University, which has become home to more than 900 Fallujans.

"The Americans feel they are a lion, but they are a cartoon lion - at anytime, insurgents may put a fire under this lion and burn it," says the sheikh. "America, because of its bad behavior, makes new enemies for itself."

The views of this sheikh and several refugee families mix anger on several levels: at homes damaged or destroyed by fighting in Fallujah; at losing political influence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq; at feeling torn between their will to force an end to American occupation, and a wish for peace.

As at any refugee camp, children here play soccer, smiles abound during food distribution from huge vats of rice and meat stew, and a young man tries to understand the workings of a Soviet-era Zenit camera he bought in Fallujah before his world collapsed late last year.

And not all voices are so extreme. Though he curses the destruction of his Fallujah house and electrical shop, Mizher al-Jumaili shares many of the aims of the US and interim government.

"I wish that democracy would take its roots in Iraq," says Mr. Jumaili, sitting on carpet in the mosque that is kept tidy by his wife, children, and mother. "I oppose radicalism from both Shiite and Sunni sides. I will support a faithful and patriotic person; the man who has no relations to foreign intelligence in the past, like America and Iran."

"But where will I find such a man?" Jumaili asks. The name he puts forward is Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric who led an armed uprising against US forces last summer. "He struggled from inside Iraq, and openly opposed the occupation."

Mr. Sadr was not a candidate, but conversations with these disenfranchised Iraqis shows how their views are often shaped and hardened by incredible rumors layered upon scanty facts - a combination that can make rational discourse with Iraqi officials and US military beyond reach.

They speak of atrocities carried out by US forces. The sheikh compares the power of the Asian tsunami to 150 atomic bombs and says that "what Americans did in Fallujah was worse." Families in Fallujah, he says, demand compensation of $100,000 - 1 percent of the $10 million Libya paid to the families of victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The Iraqi government has pledged up to $10,000 in compensation for damaged homes.

Further alienation is a factor that could aid the insurgents, says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

"It is important to dislodge the insurgents wherever they are, because when they are in one place for a long time, they have their own campaigns, and generate their own support," says Mr. Gunaratna, who supported the Fallujah operation.

"It is very important for the Iraqi government to manage the refugees, so they are not out of their homes for too long," adds Gunaratna. "They can be exploited by anyone."

One way is the spreading of rumors that deepen suspicion and cause divisions. The sheikh, for example, claims that the Iraqi insurgent who was shot dead in a mosque by a marine in Fallujah - a scene broadcast by NBC News - was later dragged out and run over repeatedly by an American tank.

He claims that "Kuwaiti fanatics" were brought in by US forces to destroy the city, "in revenge" for Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Though he denied it in this interview, the sheikh is known to be a member of the Muslim Clerics Association, a hard-line group of Sunni clerics who are known to have close ties to the insurgents, and have in the past been the conduit for the release of hostages kidnapped by extremist Sunni groups.

At the top of that list is Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian head of Al Qaeda in Iraq who has claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings. Before the November offensive, he was believed to be in Fallujah; his handover was the government's top demand.

Many here say he doesn't exist, that he was created by the US and Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to paint insurgents - many of them more interested in ending occupation than Al Qaeda's cause - with the extremist brush.

"In Zarqawi's case, there are some patriotic people fighting for the right things. They are against imperialism and fanaticism," says Jumaili. "In my mind, some of the bad people from [Iyad Allawi's party] did this, to paint the insurgency in a bad light."

"I want to live safe and in security," says refugee Bidur Khalil, who now lives in a canvas tent with all 16 members of her family. She has been to her house in Fallujah, and found the food store ruined - a move by marines to deprive insurgents of food - and says all the blankets and chairs in her house were stolen.

"Why did they do that to our houses?" asks Mrs. Khalil, covering part of her face with her head scarf. "They want to corrupt our religion, but it will be safe because of the Koran, and God."

"Allah is greater than America," affirms the sheikh, as his cellphone rings with a special tone. It's the sound of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer - not the kind of call heard in Egypt, but the even more melodic cries heard in Saudi Arabia.

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