FALLUJAH, Iraq – Rebels dressed as Iraqi police manned checkpoints in this insurgent-controlled city Monday as U.S. forces continued to amass outside in preparation for an assault everyone is certain will come soon.
Merchants shuttered their shops. Residents fled. Medical workers set up a field clinic in case clashes sever the ambulance route to the main hospital.
The message was the same from mosque loudspeakers, photocopied pamphlets and whispers on street corners: The Americans are coming for a showdown.
Fallujah slipped from government control six months ago, when U.S. Marines pulled out of the city and installed a proxy Iraqi force that soon proved ineffective and was infiltrated by insurgents. Regaining control of the city is crucial to weakening the deadly Sunni Muslim insurgency and smoothing the road to national elections scheduled for January, American and Iraqi officials say.
Peace negotiations have reached an impasse, by all indications. The Iraqi government demands that residents turn over the Islamic extremists taking refuge in Fallujah, while intermediaries complain that the demands are impossible to meet. So families have fled and the men who remain sit cross-legged in mosques as imams tell them they’re fighting for their religion and homeland.
The few moderate clerics left in the city have been silenced by death threats. One influential imam reportedly fled for Syria after his sermons calling for fighters to cede control of the city angered the Mujahedeen Shura, the council of insurgents that governs Fallujah.
“If the government insists on having a war, then we will fight,” said a young cleric known only as Sheik Mohamed, imam of the popular al Badawi mosque. “This city has seen lots of battles, lots of bombings, and we don’t want more. There are conditions, however, that we cannot meet.”
Encouraged by the deaths of eight U.S. Marines in a car bombing Saturday, guerrillas issued statements with wild claims of similar successful attacks, none of which was confirmed by the American forces in vast Anbar province.
A militant group called Mohammed’s Army claimed to have ambushed and killed 11 Marines trying to enter Fallujah and vowed to post photos of the dead on the Internet. Another, Lions of God and Victorious Ali, claimed that one of its fighters shot down an American helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, and added that the rebel was “martyred” by return fire. U.S. military spokesmen dismissed both claims.
Suhail al Abdali, a Fallujah fighter in his 30s who wouldn’t identify the group he’d joined, said there “absolutely” were foreign Islamic extremists joining the fight. However, he emphasized, most Fallujah militants are Iraqis who are wary of the foreign extremist elements but bound by custom to accept offers of battlefield help from men they consider brothers in Islam.
“Didn’t the Americans bring with them the British and the Italians? Well, we have multinational forces, too,” al Abdali said with a laugh.