BAGHDAD, Oct. 12 -- Local insurgents in the city of Fallujah are turning against the foreign fighters who have been their allies in the rebellion that has held the U.S. military at bay in parts of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, according to Fallujah residents, insurgent leaders and Iraqi and U.S. officials.
Relations are deteriorating as local fighters negotiate to avoid a U.S.-led military offensive against Fallujah, while foreign fighters press to attack Americans and their Iraqi supporters. The disputes have spilled over into harsh words and sporadic violence, with Fallujans killing at least five foreign Arabs in recent weeks, according to witnesses.
Residents of Fallujah, Iraq, search through the rubble of a building in the city center destroyed by a U.S. airstrike.
(Bilal Hussein -- AP)
"If the Arabs will not leave willingly, we will make them leave by force," said Jamal Adnan, a taxi driver who left his house in Fallujah's Shurta neighborhood a month ago after the house next door was bombed by U.S. aircraft targeting foreign insurgents.
Located 35 miles west of Baghdad in Iraq's Sunni Triangle, Fallujah has been outside the control of Iraqi authorities and U.S. military forces since April, when a siege by U.S. Marines was lifted and Iraqi security forces were given responsibility for the city's security. Local and foreign insurgents gradually gained control, and Iraqi and U.S. officials say Fallujah has become a principal source of instability in the country.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities together have insisted that if Fallujah is to avoid an all-out assault aimed at regaining control of the city, foreign fighters must be ejected. Several local leaders of the insurgency say they, too, want to expel the foreigners, whom they scorn as terrorists. They heap particular contempt on Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian whose Monotheism and Jihad group has asserted responsibility for many of the deadliest attacks across Iraq, including videotaped beheadings.
"He is mentally deranged, has distorted the image of the resistance and defamed it. I believe his end is near," Abu Abdalla Dulaimy, military commander of the First Army of Mohammad, said.
One of the foreign guerrillas killed by local fighters was Abu Abdallah Suri, a Syrian and a prominent member of Zarqawi's group. Suri's body was discovered Sunday. He was shot in the head and chest while being chased by a carload of tribesmen, according to a security guard who said he witnessed the killing.
Residents say foreign fighters recently have taken to gathering in Fallujah's grimy commercial district after being denied shelter in residential neighborhoods because their presence so often attracts U.S. warplanes. The airstrikes and the turmoil in the streets have spurred perhaps half of the city's 300,000 residents to flee, residents and officials said.
U.S. aircraft hit Fallujah twice on Tuesday. An airstrike just after midnight destroyed the city's best-known restaurant, a kebab house that a military statement said was used as an arms depot, citing "numerous secondary explosions." A second strike at 4 a.m. destroyed "a known terrorist safe house" in the northeast of the city, the statement said.
Adnan, the taxi driver who moved his panicked wife and four children to another town, said attitudes toward the foreign fighters have changed dramatically since they poured into Fallujah after the Marines' siege ended in April. "We were deceived by them," he said. "We welcomed them first because we thought they came to support us, but now everything is clear."
Among the tensions dividing the locals and the foreigners is religion. People in Fallujah, known as the city of mosques, have chafed at the stern brand of Islam that the newcomers brought with them. The non-Iraqi Arabs berated women who did not cover themselves head-to-toe in black -- very rare in Iraq -- and violently opposed local customs rooted in the town's more mystical religious tradition. One Fallujah man killed a Kuwaiti who said he could not pray at the grave of an ancestor.
Residents said the overwhelming majority of Fallujah's people also have been repulsed by the atrocities that Zarqawi and other extremists have made commonplace in Iraq. The foreign militants are thought to produce the car bombs that now explode around Iraq several times a day, and Zarqawi's organization has asserted responsibility for the slayings of several Westerners, some of which were shown in videos posted on the Internet.
There was another digital display of a beheading on Tuesday. The victim apparently was a Shiite Muslim Arab, and the group that said it posted the video identified itself as the Ansar al-Sunna Army.
Abu Barra, commander of a group of native insurgents called the Allahu Akbar Battalions, said: "Please do not mix the cards. There is an Iraqi resistance, a genuine resistance, and there are other groups trying to settle accounts. There is also terror targeting Iraqis.