FALLUJA, Iraq - Eight-year-old Anas Mohamed wept as his father picked through the rubble where their family house once stood in the besieged Iraqi town of Falluja.
"My books have been burned so how will I study?," he asked. "Where will we live? Where will we live?" he cried.
Anas, his two sisters, parents and aunt, were among thousands of residents of Falluja, besieged by U.S. forces for nearly one month, who returned home on Saturday.
Iraqi insurgents celebrate while riding through the streets of Falluja, May 1, 2004. Soldiers of the old Iraqi army led by one of Saddam Hussein's generals patrolled the city of Falluja on Saturday, a year after U.S. President George W. Bush declared the U.S. 'mission accomplished' in ousting the Iraqi regime. U.S. commanders withdrew to more distant positions on Friday, calling it an experiment that may be reversed. REUTERS/Akram Saleh
The family blamed the destruction on U.S. forces, who this week launched an aerial bombardment on the Golan district where the rubble of their house now lay.
Many returning Falluja residents found their homes damaged or destroyed, but saw the absence of American soldiers in their city as a victory over the U.S.-led forces occupying Iraq.
Across the Arab world, Falluja has become a symbol of resistance to the new U.S.-led order in Iraq. Falluja doctors say 600 of the city's residents were killed in fighting during the siege.
Surveying the damaged walls and foundations of his house, Mohamed Shakir, father of two, said maintaining Falluja's Islamic integrity by keeping U.S. forces out of the town was worth paying the price.
"Reputations are not maintained without sacrifice," he said.
Hammad Makhlas, who returned home for the first time since the start of the siege, said: "Praise God. The most important thing is that the town's dignity has been preserved with the defeat of the Americans."
U.S. forces on Friday pulled back from some positions on the outskirts of the city, among the most loyal to ousted President Saddam Hussein, and entrusted security in the city center to a former general in the former Iraqi army.
A mosque minaret in central Falluja hailed the "victory" of insurgents in the city over U.S. forces.
"God has given this town victory over the Americans," loud speakers from the mosque's minaret announced across the roof tops. "This victory came by the acts of the brave Mujahideen of Falluja who vanquished the American troops."
Gunmen holding their weapons aloft celebrated in the center of the city, where U.S. forces say they still want to root out guerrillas, foreign fighters, heavy weapons and those who killed and mutilated the bodies of four American contractors.
"I'm certain that the Americans will not come back to the town after the people of Falluja taught them some lessons," said Falluja resident Fawaq Jabbar.
"I feel Falluja will live in peace in the presence of the Iraqi police, the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and the new Iraqi army," he said, referring to a new brigade of former Iraqi troops commanded by ex-General Jasim Mohamed Saleh which began patrols in Falluja.
But Safaa Mohamed, father of seven children, has to rebuild his home in the Golan district before his family can get on with their lives.
Standing on the rubble of their home, his wife raised her hands to the sky and called on God to take revenge on President Bush.
"Why did they come thousands of miles to destroy our homes, kill our sons and drive out our families? Their war is against Muslims," she said.
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd