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Anger and faith fuel Iraqi resistance

RAMADI, Iraq -- A few hours after he mounted his latest raid on a US military convoy, Mohamed sat serenely in the shade of date palms on the manicured lawn outside a relative's farmhouse, a safe place in the most dangerous region of Iraq, and explained his decision to wage war against the Americans who occupy his country.

President Bush has attributed the daily attacks on US forces in Iraq to "foreign terrorists" and "members of the old Saddam [Hussein] regime." But Mohamed said he fights neither for Hussein's former Ba'ath Party nor for the return of the ousted dictator.

Like many residents in this Sunni Muslim stronghold west of Baghdad, Mohamed said the heavy-handed treatment of ordinary Iraqis by US forces and the military's quickness to use lethal force have driven them to fight back. Residents say hundreds of accidental shootings of innocent civilians by US troops have turned people against the occupation they initially welcomed.

Mohamed said he has come to believe in a simple principle that has galvanized the resistance movement and spurred a resurgence of Islamic piety and Iraqi nationalism: Iraqi Muslims -- not "foreign infidels" -- should be running their country.

"We don't need Saddam, and we don't need Americans," said Mohamed, who spoke on the condition that only his last name be published. "We need a Muslim to lead us to peace."

Mohamed's words, and those of more than 30 residents familiar with the resistance fighters interviewed in the main towns west of Baghdad -- Ramadi and Fallujah -- belie the US stance that all resistance fighters are entrenched former Ba'athists.

Mohamed's Sunni homeland in the fertile Euphrates valley is the front line of postwar combat in Iraq. Crouching along the highway, small, organized groups of rebels such as Mohamed's attack US troops daily, firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and detonating remote-controlled bombs as military vehicles pass.

In an interview arranged through elders of Mohamed's tribe, the burly 28-year-old father of two offered insights into the secret, ruthless world of Iraq's anti-American resistance, which has killed 91 US troops and wounded more than 730 since Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1.

As a wanted man -- the coalition offers a $2,500 reward for information on the guerrillas -- Mohamed was unwilling to be photographed. A US military official confirmed the details of the attack Mohamed said he carried out on the morning of the interview.

"At first when the Americans came, many people said: `Welcome. They are our friends.' Then most Iraqis saw how Americans kill Iraqis, day after day. They make more and more enemies here."

Accidental shootings by US troops have fed support for rebels and the Sunni clerics who inspire them, like Sheik Yunis Abdalla, who was imprisoned by Hussein's regime for his ardent criticism. Now he says the American occupation is pushing Iraqis toward the kind of devotion to Islam, and rejection of Western values, that he and other Muslim leaders would like to see.

"For 10 years, I couldn't get the people to fight Saddam's government," Abdalla said in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad. "Now in a few months Bush has achieved what I couldn't in 10 years. All Muslims are grateful for Bush."

Members of Iraq's Sunni minority had a favorable status compared with the Kurds in the north and the majority Shi'ite Muslims in the south, but residents remember Hussein for his repression and hardship. Yet for many Hussein is now a symbol of a more orderly past, said Osam Fahdawi, who owns a construction company in Fallujah.

"We don't like Saddam; he was a dictator," Fahdawi said, as US jets and helicopters patrolled the skies and small arms fire chattered outside. "But the Americans, they handcuff us, they put us on the floor in front of our wives and children. It's shameful for us."

The Iraqi Governing Council is not seen as a solution; rather, its members are seen as collaborating with the occupation. "These people are American spies," Fahdawi said.

Mohamed said he initially did not oppose the US-led war until American soldiers killed 18 Iraqi demonstrators during two incidents in Fallujah in April, two weeks after Hussein was ousted.

"They started killing our relatives and friends and our brothers, and of course, we had to start to give it back," Mohamed said.

Mohamed said he is sure he has killed American soldiers, but does not know how many because it is risky to check for casualties.

"When we attack the Americans, they start shooting like blind people, in all directions," often killing innocent civilians, he said. He said those deaths are a trade-off he is willing to accept.

Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority that runs Iraq, denied that US forces are universally unpopular in Fallujah and Ramadi. He said $4.5 million worth of reconstruction projects in the area have accompanied the effort to root out resistance fighters.

The coalition has tried to cultivate allies among influential local Iraqis, such as Sheik Mishkhen Jumaili, a leader of a prominent local tribe who serves on the American-installed Governing Council in Ramadi. But in the last two weeks, Jumaili has lost nine family members, including his son, in a series of accidental shootings by American troops.

"They mean to kill as many Iraqis as possible," Jumaili said, fighting back tears at the funeral of his cousin Beijiya last week. "All the tribes are suffering. This is murder." It is impossible for US troops to tally the number of civilians killed by mistake, said Lieutenant Kate Noble, a spokeswoman for the coalition troops:

"It would be really irresponsible on our part to give estimates." But it is hard to find a family in Ramadi or Fallujah that does not say it has lost a relative in a shooting.

The shooting of eight local policemen by American troops on Sept. 12 aggravated anti-US sentiments. The case turned Fallujah's new police force against the Americans who trained and equipped them.

"At first, Americans were very helpful. Now Americans are committing a crime," said Brigadier General Riyad Abbas al Karbuli, Fallujah's police chief.

Lieutenant Colonel George Krivo, a US spokesman in Baghdad, said the military investigates accidental shootings and apologizes where appropriate. Although the military does not publicize the practice, Krivo said officers had offered tribal leaders "blood money," following the local practice for settling feuds.

But as word of such shootings spreads through these tightly knit communities, sympathy seems to be growing for the insurgence.

At a wedding near Ramadi last week, three dozen men danced to traditional hornpipe music as 200 others looked on.

"During the day, we fight against Americans," said Mohamed Turki, an elderly guest. "During the night, we party like this." The younger Mohamed, the rebel, described an attack on the morning of his Sept. 25 interview. He said he and his friends detonated a roadside bomb and fired rocket-propelled grenades at a US convoy of Bradley fighting vehicles on Highway 10 outside the town of Habbaniyah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad.

"We saw their vehicles burning," Mohamed said. "We think we killed some of them."

Noble, the coalition spokeswoman, said one soldier from the 82d Airborne Division was wounded in an attack on a convoy at the same time and place.

Mohamed said his colleagues, who use weapons looted from Iraqi Army bases after the war, have yet to take any losses.

"[The Americans] are scared," Mohamed said. "When we find them at a checkpoint, we shoot."

Abruptly, Mohamed looked at his watch. "I have an appointment," he said, got up and walked away.

Thirty minutes later, the sound of mortar fire echoed from the direction of Highway 10 nearby.

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