FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Abraham Ghanan's body is stunted by malnutrition -- a 16-year-old whose sallow frame is fit for a boy of 10 -- but he keeps his arms strong, he says, in hopes of throwing grenades with perfect aim someday.
''I eat in the morning, a little in the day, not at night,'' Ghanan said, standing outside a US Army outpost in this city's center. ''But I have strength to kill. We want to put bombs on our body, to make a suicide operation to show we are not down.''
''These soldiers, they are the sons of George Bush,'' adds Omar Nizar, a reed-thin, barefoot 14-year-old. ''We will fight them.''
Stunning poverty and youthful bravado are a dangerous, common combination on the streets of Fallujah, known for its proud Bedouin families whose hot-headed streaks are legendary. And threats like Ghanan's are taken seriously by the US soldiers here: Not only are angry young men harassing and firing on their base intermittently, and running a brisk illegal gun market a mile away, but they're also seen as viable new recruits for anti-American agitators in Iraq and even terrorist groups abroad.
''We are keeping a close eye on the young men,'' said Lieutenant Colonel Dave Poirier, stationed at another US camp on the outskirts of Fallujah that was just set up to reduce tensions downtown. ''We're trying to help these people, not anger them.''
But some soldiers say privately that they fear they're seeing Saudi Arabia all over again. The presence of US troops in that country has been one of Al Qaeda's chief complaints and best recruiting tools, producing 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers. Now, Iraqis across the country are saying that if the United States only seeks to be a continuing force in running the country's political affairs and oil industry then Americans will be seen as self-interested occupiers among people who have little but their own festering resentments.
At the Thaat Nitagain Sunni mosque in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood, the 32-year-old imam, Basim al-Hamoundi, says that many young Iraqis are growing angry as they watch the two solid structures in their lives -- their families and the Hussein government -- break down. Many families have no money for food, no clean water. Many of the young are orphans, having lost parents to starvation, disease, or the former regime's brutality. More than a quarter are chronically malnourished, according to the United Nations. Young boys and male teenagers, especially, are quitting high school, no longer seeing the point. They've grown up in war -- against Iran in the 1980s, then Desert Storm, ''then the starvation under the UN sanctions of the '90s,'' Hamoundi said, and the US-led coalition.
''Now this illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq has given them an enemy they can fight, at last,'' Hamoundi says.
Like some other imams in Baghdad, Fallujah, and other cities, Hamoundi is encouraging jihad, or a holy war of resistance, aimed at the American troops. A 12-foot banner with the words ''Iraq for Iraqis'' spray-painted in green, hangs over the entrance to his mosque. He says men of all Islamic sects will soon unite against the coalition forces.
For the dozens of young boys who gather at the US camp in Fallujah each morning, plotting new ways to harass the troops has become something of an ego boost. When Ghanan feigns tossing a bomb, his dirt-smudged face widens with a smile as he notices two young American soldiers eyeing him carefully. Ghanan quit school three years ago after his mother was killed when a cylinder full of hot cooking gas exploded. He now lives with his uncle, who has little money to feed his own family. Ghanan says he does not mind that Hussein's secular regime has fallen because he only admires ''good and great Muslims,'' putting Osama bin Laden at the top of the list.
''He's a good man, a king for his people,'' Ghanan says.
''They are Jews and infidels against Islam,'' adds Khaled Nafei, 12, of the US troops staring from their watchtower 15 feet above the sidewalk. ''The soldiers swear at us. They look at us through their binoculars and hate us.''
Home-grown anti-American movements are more appealing to Ahmed Hameed, 20, than terror groups abroad. Hameed's right shoulder was dislocated during a rocket attack that he blames on the US fighter jets; he still hasn't received medical treatment, which is free in most cases, because his parents aren't around to pester him to see a doctor. They moved closer to the Syrian border at the start of the war, and will only return once the Americans are gone.
''I've lost my family and now I am alone, sick,'' Hameed said. ''The only answer will be a new government without the Americans here.''
Anwar Hamid Saeed, a 42-year-old father of eight children between the ages of 2 and 21, said he believes young Iraqi men will begin ''liberation operations'' and ''a martyrdom project'' this summer. The reason, he says, is not fanaticism, but self-interest.
''There is no work. There is no fuel. There is no cooking gas,'' Saeed says. ''We are not saying that Saddam is better than America. But we want to govern ourselves.''
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company