Fallujah May Be Toughest City to Retake

Searching for victims or survivors, the young man in a black T-shirt swung a sledgehammer into a slab of concrete perched atop debris — all that was left of a house blasted by U.S. warplanes. Nine people, two of them children, died in the ruins.

About 100 people watched as the young man labored under a blazing sun Thursday to clear the damage from the U.S. airstrike, which the Americans said targeted a suspected terrorist safehouse. Religious books, including "Three Theses on Jihad," were scattered amid the debris.

There was no evidence that the attack got its target. Instead, locals said, it only whipped up new anger in Fallujah (search), which is among a handful of Sunni cities that have fallen under insurgent control. On Friday, U.S. jets again fired missiles into targets in the city for a fourth successive day. Doctors said one man was killed in Friday's strike.

The reaction of Fallujah's residents to the strikes suggests that the city may well prove the toughest to take back.

"Our faith has been strengthened by the fight against the Americans," said Abu Mohammed, a 40-year-old cleric who refused to give his full name. "We feel in danger. This is an infidel occupation that wants to destroy Islam. We must fight."

U.S. Marines lost the city last spring when they lifted a three-week siege and handed over security to the U.S.-sanctioned Fallujah Brigade (search), commanded by former officers in Saddam Hussein's army.

But the city quickly fell under the control of hardline Muslim clerics and the mujahedeen gunmen who fought — and many Iraqis would say defeated — the vaunted United States Marines.

Over the past five months, the new masters of Fallujah have been consolidating their grip, building their Islamic society — and preparing for a new showdown with the Americans.

Recent U.S. airstrikes have heightened tension in the city, feeding fears that an all-out American attack may be imminent. That has prompted hundreds of families to flee their homes, transforming neighborhoods facing U.S. positions into ghost towns.

The exodus has given the mujahedeen the freedom to move into those areas and take up well-concealed positions in dense urban districts. Iraqi police now operate under mujahedeen control. The Fallujah Brigade has ceased to exist as an organized force.

"If there is occupation, there must be resistance," said Khaled Hamoud, a respected cleric who led a team of negotiators from Fallujah to meet Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) last week to discuss conditions in the city. "We want to live in peace, but it seems that Fallujah is punished for every attack on the Americans, no matter where it takes place."

Consolidation of power around Islamic clerics and their gunmen followers has also sidelined most of Fallujah's tribal leaders, many of whom cooperated with the Americans. Some prominent tribal leaders have fled the country, and others rarely venture from their heavily guarded homes.

With the clerics in charge, and with their mujahedeen fighters hailed heroes for fighting the Marines to a standstill, the religious establishment has promoted tales of the April siege into something approaching mythology.

That has bolstered the prestige of the clerical hierarchy among the city's 300,000 people, who consider their "victory" over the Marines an example of "divine intervention." Residents insist that the city has become virtually crime free thanks to the leadership of God-fearing men.

Residents keenly swap tales of supernatural forces at work. Reports of visions of the Prophet Muhammad appearing in Fallujah and leading the warriors are taken seriously, even drawing mention in Friday sermons in the city's mosques.

Accounts of giant desert spiders attacking American troops, white pigeons protecting the mujahedeen in battle and "heavenly" scents emanating from the bodies of martyrs spread through the city.

The fact that such stories are taken seriously in Fallujah reflects the strong and mystical Sufi traditions among the city's population, something that separates them from others within the so-called Sunni Triangle (search), a large swath of land to the north and west of Baghdad where resistance to the Americans is fiercest.

There is another side to Fallujah's religious revival. Some people have been flogged in public for drinking alcohol. At least 30 have been executed for allegedly spying for the Americans, according to residents closely associated with the mujahedeen.

A bearded fighter standing guard Wednesday in the city's industrial district berated a reporter for wearing a gold wedding band on his finger. Muslim males are prohibited from wearing gold objects.

The gunman, who identified himself only as Abu Abdullah, also took issue with the reporter's companion for wearing a gold chain. When the companion pointed out that the chain included a small tablet bearing a Quranic verse, Abu Abdullah snapped: "By Allah, this is all forbidden. Only Allah can protect you."