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US Faces 'Ball of Fire' in Falluja - Iraqi Cleric
Published on Wednesday, September 17, 2003 by Reuters
U.S. Faces 'Ball of Fire' in Falluja - Iraqi Cleric
by Suleiman al-Khalidi
 

FALLUJA, Iraq - Sheikh Khaled Saleh, a fiery Iraqi Sunni Muslim cleric, says the young angry men battling U.S. troops in the violent town of Falluja are holy warriors who look to Osama bin Laden as their mentor.

"Although unorganized and without leadership, the Iraqi resistance is a ball of fire in America's face that will bring its end in Iraq," said the 53-year-old cleric, whose sermons draw thousands in the main Badawi mosque, one of over 70 mosques in the center of Falluja.


Residents of the conservative tribal region insist the fighters are driven by a thirst for revenge against heavy-handed tactics by American troops.

The cleric said growing numbers of young men in Falluja were influenced by bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi militant behind the shadowy al Qaeda network blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The city of almost 500,000 people, 45 miles west of Baghdad, lies in the Sunni Muslim triangle, a bedrock of support for deposed leader Saddam Hussein and anti-U.S. resistance.

In recent weeks, it has seen some of the fiercest clashes with U.S. forces, with ambushes on convoys by unknown attackers using small arms, explosives and grenades.

"We have made the Americans dizzy," said the cleric at his home in the town, known by its inhabitants as the "City of Mosques."

Residents are coy about the identity of the men who spray walls with pro-Saddam graffiti and encourage citizens to kill American troops.

The latest public messages were posters plastered across the city that warned residents to stay far from U.S. convoys to avoid being hit.

One slogan scrawled on the wall of the busy open market read: "Our leader Saddam Hussein will return."

THIRST FOR REVENGE

Residents of the conservative tribal region insist the fighters are driven by a thirst for revenge against heavy-handed tactics by American troops.

"They are moved by national pride and honor to protect their homes," said Hisham Alousi, who runs a religious school for mosque preachers.

In a city that saw Saddam, a Sunni, as protector, locals say the attacks have struck fear into the Americans.

"The Americans are cowards and now they are afraid of any gunshot from any strange quarter," said Fadl Ibrahim.

Local anger was inflamed even further when 10 Iraqi security officers and a Jordanian were killed in a gunbattle with U.S. troops last week. The U.S. military apologized for the incident.

Many locals recall a history of resistance to foreign conquerors, saying the Americans would meet the fate of their predecessors.

"This is the 21st fall of Baghdad and at every turn the invaders were repulsed here at the heart of Arab world," said Ahmad Said, a former army officer in Saddam's now-defunct army.

For many of Falluja's residents, Saddam remains an Arab warrior who fought for Iraq's glory.

"It's a crime that President Saddam should go. He was everything for us, our father who gave us everything," Mohammad Shaker said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd

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