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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Falluja: 'American graveyard'

By Richard Lister
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

Looking on as a crowd of cheering Iraqis desecrated the bodies of four civilians killed by insurgents, 12-year-old Mohammad Nafik said: "This is the fate of all Americans who come to Falluja."

Falluja youth holding sign after attack on US contractors 31 March 2004
"Falluja is a cemetery for Americans", militants warn
The town has gained a reputation, particularly in recent weeks, as being one of the most violently opposed to the occupation.

US troops have faced almost daily attacks there, and the recent killing and mutilation of four American civilian contractors - surrounded by a jubilant crowd - marked a new level of violence towards those who represent, or work for, the coalition.

Falluja is in a region that has become known as the "Sunni triangle" - a predominantly Sunni Muslim area in a country with a Shia majority.

The region also incorporates Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit.

As well as being united by religion, there are also important tribal links, and it was from this region that Saddam Hussein (himself a Sunni Muslim - notionally at least) recruited his powerbase of support.

That goes some way towards explaining the anti-coalition hostility in the region.

Revenge

After the invasion, the perks of being looked after by Saddam Hussein disappeared, and the confidence which came from being a powerful minority was replaced by the uncertainty of being simply a minority.

In Falluja itself there is a particularly deep-seated enmity towards the Americans.

FALLUJA FLASHPOINT
Burning car in Falluja 31 March
April 2003: US paratroopers shoot dead 13 demonstrators
May 2003: attacks on US troops become a routine occurrence
Nov. 2003-Jan. 2004: attacks on three US helicopters kill 25
Feb. 2004: 25 killed in attacks on police station and civil defence compound
31 March 2004: four US contractors killed


Two weeks after the invasion was complete, angry crowds gathered outside a makeshift American barracks in Falluja and shots were fired.

The US troops fired on the crowd and at least 15 Iraqis were killed.

The incident served as a flashpoint, igniting a series of attacks against coalition forces across the region.

Some of the attacks in Falluja since - or at least the support for them - can be attributed to a desire to take revenge for a friend or relative killed by coalition forces.

The US troops who have been responsible for security in the region have had an unenviable task

The Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which had responsibility for Falluja until mid-March, had increasingly left responsibility for patrolling the town centre to Iraqi police, and made only occasional forays into Falluja.

But US Marines have now taken over and adopted a much more high-profile approach to tackling the insurgents.

They have conducted raids on various parts of the town looking for weapons, and had frequent running battles with guerrillas.

Crossfire

Although several Marines have been killed, the Iraqi casualty figure has been much higher.

Some 30 are thought to have been killed in the last two weeks of March alone.

Many were simply caught in crossfire, and inevitably, that continues to fuel the tensions.

It seems likely that the Marines decided not to intervene in the grisly violence in Falluja on 31 March simply because the contractors were already dead, and entering the town risked making a bad situation even worse.

But the US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has said "the attacks will not go unpunished".

Further clashes seem inevitable, not least because the Americans cannot afford to have Falluja seen as a no-go area, successfully challenging their authority.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Caroline Hawley reports
"There's never been an attack as brutal as this"



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