Enraged Iraqis promised vengeance after they dragged 10 bodies from the rubble of a building, destroyed by an explosion, beside the green domed al-Hassan mosque in the town of Fallujah west of Baghdad yesterday.
"We will kill many American soldiers for this," said Abdullah, one of the crowd, as he looked at the ruins. "What would people say if this happened to a Christian church in America?"
Iraqis in Fallujah, which has seen many clashes with American troops, say that a US plane fired a missile that killed people listening to a religious lecture late at night. This is hotly denied by the United States army, which says there were no American planes or helicopters over the town at the time.
The deaths in Fallujah were at the start of a day that saw escalating violence in and around Baghdad - at least four people were killed or wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired from a car into an American vehicle near the university.
4 IRAQIS SHOT TO DEATH AT CHECKPOINT
US soldiers take up positions as shots are fired during an ongoing investigation after troops killed two men when their car didn't stop at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday July 1, 2003. The shots were fired by US troops on a second vehicle approaching the checkpoint, killing its sole occupant and another person travelling in a car behind him. A total number of 4 persons were killed at the same checkpoint set up to provide security for a visiting congressional delegation. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
On the road from Baghdad to Fallujah, at Ghazalia, a partly burned US truck had jack-knifed into the metal barrier dividing the highway after it was blown up by a bomb. "It was a command-control-device," said an American soldier on guard. The rest of the convoy that had been attacked was parked further down the road.
Local people said they had seen two injured US soldiers being taken away by helicopter, but they did not know if they were dead or wounded.
Captain John Ives of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division denied that the US was in any way involved in the explosion in Fallujah. He said: "There were no US aircraft or helicopters in the area."
He added that American troops had not arrived at the site of the blast until three hours later and he believed, from looking at the damage, that there had been an explosion inside the building.
He denied claims that the mosque had been under surveillance, but he added that its Imam was known to oppose the US presence. The American troops had been careful not to set foot on land where the mosque stands to avoid offending religious sensitivities.
It is not a consideration likely to do US forces in Fallujah much good. Angry local people outside the al-Hassan mosque would not hear of suggestions that bombs or missiles had been stored in the building. A jagged gray fragment of a shell or missile was passed from hand to hand by the crowd but it was impossible to tell if it was from an American or an Iraqi weapon. "A thousand of them should die for every Iraqi who was killed here," one said.
"There is no God but Allah, America is the enemy of God," some people chanted, as a crane lifted pieces of concrete.
Nevertheless some of those attending the lecture may have been fearful of being arrested for storing arms. Sheikh Laith al-Zobai, who had been speaking when the explosion happened, had left Fallujah general hospital within hours of having his foot amputated. He later died of his wounds.
Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, has been a hotbed of anti-American activity since the war and scene of several confrontations involving US troops.
Despite the mounting violence, Paul Bremer, the chief US official in Iraq, said at his weekly press conference in Baghdad yesterday the attacks were the work of a few surviving supporters of Saddam Hussein "getting more desperate" because they could see the success of the US and Britain in restoring normal life in Iraq.
Mr Bremer claimed that "day by day things are continuing to improve" and listed the achievements of his administration. He added that evidence of Iraqi support for the Coalition Provisional Authority - as the occupation administration is known - was that more people were coming forward to give information about those attacking US forces. He also said that the attacks were often professional, carried out by groups of between five and seven men, often former members of the Republican Guard or the former Iraqi security services.
A more telling sign of real US apprehensions is that Mr Bremer's press conferences, at which he dispenses resolute optimism in the face of increasing skepticism from journalists, take place at the National Convention Center in central Baghdad behind enormous fortifications of barbed wire and concrete blocks.
Iraqis interviewed about attacks on US forces largely approve of them. One Iraqi observer said: "Iraqis generally believe it is good that the Americans are attacked not because they support Saddam Hussein. But they think that the US takes them lightly because the war only lasted three weeks and therefore the Americans thought they could ignore Iraqi opinion about the reconstruction of their country."
So far there is no sign that the attacks are centrally co-ordinated except at local level. But the friction between Iraqis and the US troops is increasing, particularly because of the failure to restore public security and the continuing shortage of electricity and water as the torrid summer heat increases.
An explosion over the weekend at an ammunitions depot killed at around 15 people and injured at least four near Hadithah, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, officials said yesterday. The mayor complained that American troops had been guarding it only sporadically.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd