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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 May, 2004, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Eyewitness: Falluja's grief and defiance

By Caroline Hawley
BBC Baghdad correspondent in Falluja

Caroline Hawley was the one of the first western journalists to visit the Iraqi town of Falluja, the scene of recent fierce fighting between US troops and Iraqi insurgents. Amid the devastation and human tragedy she found relief on both sides that the ceasefire is, for the moment, holding.

An Iraqi man clears the rubble of a house that was destroyed during the fighting
Some houses were flattened by the US shelling
In parts of Falluja you could still smell death in the air. Many hundreds of Iraqis civilians are believed to have died during the course of the fighting.

In one area, Jolan - the scene of the fiercest fighting - I saw houses that had been completely flattened by American bombs.

There was a lot of anger there. I spoke to one man who said he was just locking up his door, and had just got his family out of the house, when a bomb hit. It destroyed his house - and he was injured in the leg.

He told me the bombing was everywhere - it was random. He said he had nothing to do with the resistance, he had no weapons.

Burying the dead

Another witness told me he had seen an American sniper shoot a taxi driver in the head as he was trying to take a wounded man to hospital.

At another house I was taken to, I was told that 36 people - members of one extended family - had been killed when two rockets went through their roof.

Iraqis gather around the graves of their relatives and friends killed during the fighting in football pitch turned into a cemetery
Both civilians and militants are buried on a football pitch
We were told there that five children were still under the rubble. So, clearly, Falluja hasn't yet buried all its dead.

Many of the dead who have been buried lie in what was a football pitch. Where people used to go to play, they now go to mourn.

There are simple headstones for those who died - civilians and combatants.

There was one particular grave where people were praying and grieving. The headstone said here lay the bodies of two baby girls.

Mood of defiance

I did not get to see all parts of Falluja. We went in via a back road where I saw walls pock marked with bullet holes, and graffiti saying "Long live the Mujahideen (fighters)".

I did not see any fighters myself, but at one point I saw a man with a gun, in civilian clothes, in a car - and a man crouched at the side of the road with a rocket-propelled grenade.

But apart from that, no signs of the fighters. They appear to have melted away.

Iraqi force members in Falluja
Some see the Iraqi force's entry into Falluja as a defeat for the US
What we did see were members of the Iraqi security forces, the ICDC, positioned on the bridge where it all began - where the bodies of the four American private security contractors who were killed and mutilated had been hung.

We also saw members of Saddam Hussein's former army, soldiers who were about to go out and patrol in Jolan.

They were saying they were there to protect the people.

There was a mood of defiance, they were flashing Vs for victory signs, they were smiling. They were waving their guns in the air as they set off in cars, heading towards Jolan.

Hopes of return to normality

I was told that in Jolan there was no water and no electricity, and we saw a damaged power line.

But elsewhere in the town things seemed relatively intact.

There were some shops open and people seemed relieved to be going about their business.

I saw some further signs of normality returning to the place - families beginning to come back, in cars piled high with mattresses and belongings.

An Iraqi family collects water in Falluja
Many local residents still have no running water
The new general appointed to run the Falluja Brigades says he is confident the ceasefire will last.

There is relief that the Americans are out of the town, and Iraqis are back in control there.

But the agreement that has been reached is fairly tenuous.

Symbol of resistance

The original American demand had been that Falluja hand over those who had been responsible for killing the four Americans but we simply don't know if that is still a demand.

It seems that for the moment the Americans are relieved themselves that the fighting is over, because it was a costly battle for their forces too - although city residents came off much worse with the might of the world's military superpower brought to bear on them.

The irony is that the Americans have had to turn to former soldiers in Saddam's army - who only a year ago they were celebrating victory over - to restore order in Falluja.

I was told the day before our visit, the fighters had been parading through town in a sort of victory parade, and that people had felt proud of them standing up to the might of the American army.

Falluja has become a symbol of resistance to the American occupation, and a focus of anger and of pride.

Amid the grief and the mourning, there is still a spirit of defiance.


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The BBC's Caroline Hawley
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