Lieutenant Colonel Saad Jasim is reluctant to talk in the open courtyard. He orders his men to bolt the metal door to his small office before he will agree to speak. Outside the brick hut is a large walled compound in which dozens of his armed troops from the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps are barking orders to each other in the bright morning sun. Between them and Falluja's main high street is a vast concrete blast wall, guarded by a handful of extremely anxious Defense corps soldiers.
It was on the other side of this wall and just a few minutes' drive up the road that insurgents gunned down four American security contractors as they drove past in their four-wheel-drives on Wednesday morning.
Where there are now two blackened circles on the carriageway, a jeering mob quickly formed, dragged the burnt bodies from the cars and hacked them apart, pulling some through the streets from the back of a car, hanging others from the green metal pontoon bridge over the Euphrates.
It was the most gruesome attack against Americans in Iraq since the war last year,
and a horror whose images clash conspicuously with US talk of progress and rebuilding.
None of the town's 900 Defense corps troops went to intervene, nor did the Iraqi police, whose headquarters is even closer, nor did the thousands of better-armed, better-trained troops from America's 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based on the outskirts of town.
"We were only told about it when it had finished," Col Jasim, 38, a former Iraqi army officer, offered by way of explanation. "By the time we arrived there was no one there."
It should come as no surprise that the Iraqi security forces in Falluja are scared half to death.
This Sunni town, 40 miles west of Baghdad, has produced the most violent resistance to America's occupation of Iraq. There have been dozens of fatal attacks on US troops and Iraqi police, who are regarded by many locals as little more than collaborators. In turn, dozens more Iraqi civilians have died in American raids and military operations.
Six weeks ago a gang of well-armed insurgents rampaged through Col Jasim's base and the nearby police station, killing 23 people and releasing dozens of prisoners.
In front of his men, Col Jasim continues to insist that security is good here.
"There is no town or city that is empty of insurgents or criminals," he said. "We are passing through a stage where there is no central state and where no one is dealing with law and order. If the Americans deliver real authority to the Iraqis
then no one will have an excuse to make operations against them."
Yesterday a joint police and Defense corps team were manning a barbed-wire checkpoint on the edge of town and simply waving most cars through. There was no sign of American marines in the city.
Few in Falluja will dare to criticize the muqawama , or resistance, yet yesterday even some in this town appeared shocked, if not by the killings themselves, then at least by the brutality of the mob.
"That was wrong. It was a mistake, it was against the Islamic Sharia," said Ghazia Mohammed, a schoolteacher queuing in the town center. Yet even educated, middle-class men like this are deeply angry with the US occupation.
"It is not just a matter of resistance, it is a matter of self-defense because they occupied our state and we should dismiss them," he said. "They destroyed our houses, our stores, they are raiding our families, they don't respect us. How should we accept that? They said they would improve our lives while instead they are fighting us. Is that democracy?"
Abbas al-Hussein, a civil servant from Falluja's education directorate, spoke with foreboding. "Anything could happen in this city from now on.The people feel such injustice. The coalition forces have humiliated people and treated them badly. Power and force will never stop these operations because people are ready to sacrifice themselves according to their Islamic beliefs."
American officials in Baghdad insisted the attackers were a "restorationist" movement that wanted to reinstall Saddam Hussein. "I don't believe they want
Saddam back," said Col Jasim. "It is an Islamic movement. They are fighting to get the Americans out."
The gunmen who orchestrated Wednesday's attack disappeared once the four Americans had been killed. It was the crowd, and particularly a group of young, even teenage, men who dragged the bodies out of the cars and mutilated them.
Unbroadcast television footage showed them trailing a disfigured corpse from the back of a white car as they waved Kalashnikov rifles and posters of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas who was assassinated by the Israelis.
The US last night promised to use "overwhelming" force in response to the attacks. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said that coalition forces would "hunt down the people responsible for this bestial act". He said: "It will be at a time and a place of our choosing. It will be methodical, it will be precise and it will be overwhelming."
Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, said it was an act committed by "human jackals". His staff insist this attack and others recently are merely an "uptick" in "localized" violence.
It is, however, ever harder for Iraqis to believe that these killings will not derail attempts at reconstruction. Yesterday a trade fair due to be held in Baghdad next week - the largest business gathering since the war - was postponed indefinitely.
The US marines took over responsibility for the Falluja area from the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division a few days ago. Marine commanders promised a more measured approach to the intractable problem of resistance in Iraq's Sunni heart land. The reality on the ground was quite different. Even before the formal handover ceremony, five marines had been killed.
Last week the troops launched aggressive raids through one eastern district of Falluja that left at least six Iraqi civilians dead, including an Iraqi cameraman working for America's ABC television. It was enough to convince the people of Falluja there had been no change in the military's approach.
In the offices of Falluja's council yesterday, tribal sheikhs met to discuss how they should react to Wednesday's killings. After talking with the Americans soon after the attack, they issued a statement condemning the crowd's behavior.
"It was against the noble Islamic beliefs, against the instructions of the noble Sharia and against tribal values," it said.
Individually, they admit their frustration with the Americans. Sheikh Mohammed Hanad al-Shihane, a deputy leader of the council, blamed the crowd's anger on unemployment, corruption that is delaying reconstruction and heavy-handed soldiering by US troops. The council asked the marine commanders to keep out of the city for the moment and to give more support and training to Iraqi security forces to handle law and order.
"It is not true that these people want Saddam back," he said. "All the city is against the occupation and all the mistakes happened because of the occupation. That much is so clear."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004