Thursday, June 24, 2004

BAGHDAD — Residents of Fallujah say foreign insurgents have banned drinking and music, imposed their own courts to enforce strict Islamic law and killed more than a dozen people suspected of collaborating with U.S. forces.

U.S. military officials, who turned the city over to an Iraqi-led “Fallujah Brigade” last month, say they have only anecdotal information about conditions in the city but remain concerned about the influence of fighters loyal to terror chief Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Regular travelers between Baghdad and Fallujah say various groups of mujahideen, or holy warriors, have turned the city 30 miles west of Baghdad into a haven for Islamist radicals.

Foreign fighters from Yemen, Syria and even Pakistan have set up checkpoints in many parts of the city, said Adnan Abdi, a Baghdad businessman who frequently visits Fallujah.

The mujahideen have imposed occasionally harsh versions of Islamic law, said several residents, some of whom were interviewed when disembarking at the Fallujah bus terminal in Baghdad.

Untroubled by members of the U.S.-backed military force known as the Fallujah Brigade, they said, the extremists have banned liquor and popular music and have established a special 6-week-old “mujahideen court” to dispense justice.

In the case of people suspected of passing information to U.S. forces, the “justice” is even more peremptory.

On Tuesday, witnesses said, a vehicle painted like a police car but probably operated by mujahideen pulled up to a stoplight next to a man suspected of helping the Americans find militants’ safe houses. The “police,” their faces covered, opened fire.

“I must have heard over a hundreds rounds,” said Naqoz, a Fallujah resident and employee of a Western nonprofit group who asked that his family name not be published.

U.S. military officials and Iraqis struck a deal in May after weeks of intense combat that placed security in the city in the hands of the all-Iraqi Fallujah Brigade commanded by a former Saddam-era general.

But a senior military officer reached by telephone from Washington said yesterday, “We remain concerned [that Fallujah] is not under Iraqi government controls. … Most of Fallujah remains under the control of foreign fighters, extremists and the Zarqawi network.”

Zarqawi and his followers are blamed in the beheadings of two civilians and a string of suicide bombings. U.S. forces twice in the past week have rocketed houses in Fallujah that had been identified to them as Zarqawi safe houses.

The U.S. officer said the Fallujah Brigade was “making incremental progress” against the radicals, but that Marine commanders in charge of the region “are not completely satisfied with the pace of progress.”

“There is anecdotal evidence of the [extremists] trying to set up a court system and harassing citizens. But there is no evidence their influence is dominant,” the officer said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, interviewed last night on Fox News, said officers on the ground deserved credit for trying to work with local leaders to get the resistance in Fallujah “to behave itself.”

“Was it worth the try? Probably. Did it work? Not yet,” he said.

Thomas V. Johnson, public-affairs officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Anbar province, which includes Fallujah, answered indirectly when asked about reports that extremists have killed more than a dozen people suspected of passing information to the Americans.

“We know that the latest tactic of anti-Iraqi forces is to intimidate and attack the will of the Iraqi people,” he said.

Asked about the religious court, he said, “I have heard of some enforcement of religious codes, but I am not familiar with a special court.”

But several residents said the courts dispense their punishments quickly and harshly upon those who violate their rules.

“If you steal, you will get your hand cut off. If you kill, you are killed. If you drink alcohol, you get lashed 80 times,” said Amar Jassem, a 25-year-old Fallujah driver who shuttles passengers between the capital and his hometown in his minivan.

As many as 14 suspected collaborators had been fatally shot on the streets for giving information to Americans, said Fallujah resident Saad Najam Abdullah, who visits Baghdad to drink alcohol without fear of being arrested.

“We saw corpses all over the city,” he said. “They put a piece of paper on the man’s corpse with his name and citing evidence that he spied for Americans.”

Like many of those interviewed, Mr. Abdullah spoke with surprising approval of the new regime.

“The mujahideen are applying Islamic laws very precisely against the criminals,” he said.

“It’s true that all music stores must sell only religious music, not other music,” said Mostafa Javad, a 25-year-old university student who commutes daily between Baghdad and Fallujah. “But people in Fallujah are going into religion more and more every day.”

Several said the residents tolerate the mujahideen, even allowing their own sons to join them, because of their rage against the American forces — whom they accuse of killing hundreds of civilians during the fighting that began in April.

Even before that, U.S. forces raided houses and made mass arrests in the city, which was a fiercely independent and hard-line stronghold even under Saddam Hussein’s rule.

One of the few to object to the mujahideen presence was the man who identified himself only as Naqoz.

“There are Arabs from Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt,” he said. “They come for jihad. They see Fallujah as a battleground between themselves and the Americans. … The people of Fallujah are afraid of them.”

• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report in Washington.

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