'Do we look like fighters?' ask Fallujah families with their disabled, their old and their children

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The Independent Online

In an abandoned air-raid shelter in west Baghdad, people from Fallujah crouch in semi-darkness. Their voices tremble as they recall how they survived the week-long siege.

In an abandoned air-raid shelter in west Baghdad, people from Fallujah crouch in semi-darkness. Their voices tremble as they recall how they survived the week-long siege.

Not all did. In a tent outside relatives were mourning for Mushref Mohi, aged 70, who died of exhaustion during the eight hours that his family was kept waiting at US checkpoints as they fled the city.

"There was nothing much wrong with him and he usually liked to walk everywhere instead of driving," said his brother, Rabbia Mohi Maloud al-Daraji. "But they kept us waiting from 10am to 6.20pm because they searched every car for half an hour, and he could not take the strain."

By yesterday morning 88 people from Fallujah had crowded into Shelter No 24, a disused bunker painted green and white in an attempt at camouflage in the Amariyah district of Baghdad. Beds lined both sides of the dark entrance corridor, dimly illuminated by a few bulbs that flicker out during the frequent electricity cuts.

"Do we look like fighters?" asked Milouq Abbas, a middle-aged woman in a black robe, pointing to her three children. Like other survivors, she was outraged by the claim by the US Marines that the 600 dead and 1,200 wounded in Fallujah were mostly armed insurgents.

Although the families in Shelter No 24 are very poor, they had scraped together enough money to hire a mourning tent, traditional in Iraq, for Mushref Mohi, so that his relatives could be comforted over his death.

In one corner of the tent, wearing a white hat and staring sightlessly in front of him, was Abdul Salaam, aged about 20 and blind since birth. "I heard the roar of the bombing and I was frightened," he said. "I cannot read but I know a lot of the Koran by heart and I started reciting it to myself."

We were taken to the families in the shelter by Dr Abed al-Illah, a specialist in internal medicine who is also a representative of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is part of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He had just visited Fallujah hospital. He said: "About 350 out of the 600 dead were women and children. One was only eight months old. Many died from simple wounds and could have been saved if they had medical attention."

The anger and bitterness of Iraqis such as Dr Illah, a veteran opponent of Saddam Hussein, over the slaughter of civilians in Fallujah shows how few friends the US has left in Iraq. He said: "The Americans claim that all the wounded are fighters and will not let us take them away. Families cannot escape because of their snipers."

On the gate into the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters in Amariyah is a poster of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killed by an Israeli missile last month. Inside other members of the party, almost all Sunni Arabs, officially allied to the US in Iraq, spoke in terms of outraged nationalism.

"We are looking after 400 families from Fallujah," said Muneeb al-Durubi. Reflecting on the more general impact of the crisis, he said: "The most important thing these days is a kind of marriage between the Sunni and the Shia. The Americans gamble on dividing us, but the Shia are providing food, medicine and weapons. They have opened their homes to refugees." He thought only the Kurdish leaders were really loyal to the Allies.

An important development over the past week is that, because of the attack on Fallujah and the offensive against the cleric Muqtada Sadr, there are decreasing number of Iraqis on whom the US can rely. A central aim of the US is to build up Iraqi security forces, but when the 620-man 2nd Battalion of the US-trained new Iraqi army was ordered to Fallujah last week they refused to go.

US officers reportedly estimate that 20 to 25 per cent of the Iraqi security forces have disappeared, changed sides or declined to co-operate with the US. Iraqis working with foreigners of any kind are increasingly fearful of being accused of being collaborators.

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