Near a wall bearing the words "God, nation and the leader Saddam Hussein," a convoy of nearly a dozen cars sped through the dark streets celebrating the marriage of Harith Ahmed. The crowd of young men was boisterous, the mood was exuberant. And as is custom at Iraqi weddings in a country where nearly everyone possesses a gun, witnesses said, a teenager fired one or perhaps three celebratory shots from an antiquated rifle.
What followed last Monday night in this city turned smoldering resentment at the seven-week U.S. occupation into unrelenting anger, a window on sentiments expressed more and more often in interviews across this region of central Iraq, long home to the country's Sunni Muslim minority.
Witnesses said a patrol of American soldiers was standing across the city circle, a dirt expanse with a crumbling traffic post painted white and blue. At the sound of the gunshots, witnesses said, the American soldiers fired at a crowded blue pickup truck at the tail end of the convoy. "Go, go, they're trying to kill us!" Abdel-Salam Jassim, 17, recalled shouting from the back of the truck, as the staccato bursts of gunfire rang out. In the confusion, he said, another partygoer in the truck shouted, "Stop, stop!"
By the time the shooting ended five minutes later, a 17-year-old Iraqi had fallen in the street dead. A 16-year-old, mortally wounded, hung from the back of the truck as it sped away, his hands dragging along the pavement. Two others, ages 13 and 14, lay dead in the truck. Seven were wounded, including Jassim, who was recovering last week at the Samarra General Hospital from a wound to the stomach.
Soldiers with the Army's 4th Infantry Division in Samarra said today that they were not authorized to discuss the incident. But a statement from U.S. Central Command said the soldiers had been fired on by the convoy. When they returned fire, the statement said, the car sped away. Of the Iraqi casualties, it said: "The exact cause of their deaths are unknown."
But across a once-privileged swath of Iraq that stretches west along the Euphrates River and north along the Tigris River, the shooting has served as one more rallying cry in an already restive region, where U.S. soldiers face daily attacks and residents are increasingly bold in their predictions of more strife and bloodshed as long as the Americans stay.
"God will take revenge on them," Jassim said from his hospital bed.
"This whole tragedy is because of the Americans," said Maan Lufta, a doctor standing nearby. "They are invaders of our city. For what? Can you tell me why they came? Do you think they really came to liberate us? Who believes that? Nobody believes that."
In an uncertain country, Iraq's Sunni Muslims are deeply unsettled. In cities like Samarra, Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit, once relatively wealthy towns along well-watered fields and orchards, there is a fear of the future, often revealed most clearly in a nostalgia for the past. During his three-decade rule, Hussein's fellow Sunni Muslims dominated the country and Shiites were largely repressed.
Among some, Hussein is still given the title "president" -- a symbol of utter authority in a country with little of it remaining. Graffiti celebrate his rule -- "Yes, yes to the beloved leader Saddam" -- and some of his portraits remain.
In interviews this week in this region, many Iraqis were quick to declare the United States the enemy; its tanks and helicopters are the face of the occupation most often seen in these towns. But beyond the open resentment, there is growing introspection among Sunni Muslims about the fate of a minority that -- by virtue of its wealth, education and the favoritism of overlords -- has ruled Iraq for centuries. To many, the Arab nationalism that once bound them together rings hollow. Religion, an untested movement in a country whose official ideology was secular, has become more prominent.
"Every humble Iraqi has the same opinion," said Mohammed Hussein, the owner of the Hajj Hussein Restaurant in Fallujah, serving the kebab for which the city is famous. "We haven't seen anything better than what was provided under Saddam."
On the walls of the restaurant are portraits of 22 elderly men from Fallujah. "People who had dignity," as Mohammed Hussein put it. In the dusty town, along buildings of concrete and cinder block, dignity is a trait celebrated along with notions of honor and morality, a tribal code born of the desert that still runs deep in provincial towns and the countryside outside Baghdad.
Many in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, complain that U.S. forces are denying them those traditions. They said troops hassle them at checkpoints, urinate in the streets, keep their fingers on their triggers as they approach and spy on women with binoculars. Families sleep on the roofs of their homes to withstand the sweltering summer heat, but complain of helicopters flying low to get a bird's-eye view of women and children. Rumor or not, the perceptions are so ingrained as to qualify as reality, the subject of conversation after conversation in restaurants like Hussein's. Graffiti along a wall declare that "Fallujah will remain a fire burning the invaders."
"If there's one way, there are 100 ways they make us mad," said Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a 48-year-old customer dressed in a traditional gray dishdasha, or robe. "We wish they would leave tomorrow."
Saleh quoted an Iraqi proverb that translates literally as "the mud is becoming wetter." It means things are getting worse. Saleh and Mohammed Hussein said they distrust Iraq's political parties, many of whose members spent years in exile or are beholden to the United States. They complain that lawlessness remains, despite the U.S. presence. Speaking in veiled terms, they worried about the resurgence of groups representing Shiite Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of the population.
The two men said they long for Hussein's rule. Not the man necessarily, they added, but the authority he provided. They insisted no one else can rule a country renowned for divisiveness.
"The first thing he did was provide us security," Saleh said. "At any hour, I could wander anywhere in the province. When the dregs of society heard Saddam's name, they were frightened. Now, they're in charge."
Mohammed Hussein, a stocky man with a thick mustache and three days of stubble, nodded his head. "I'm not an admirer of Saddam, I'm not an admirer of the Baath Party," he said. "But we need an alternative for Iraq. Until now, there is no one other than Saddam. The Americans have left everything in suspension." He paused, then added, "You'll see in the future what will happen."
The legacy of the fallen president still casts a long shadow across this region so central to the Sunni Muslims of Iraq. On buildings that line four-lane highways here, where trucks are laden with clover and roadside stands sell the region's famed watermelon, newly painted slogans scrawled in black read: "Saddam Hussein is the builder of the glory of Iraq." Another reads: "Saddam Hussein, we will never let you down."
It was in this crescent of territory that Hussein built the ranks of the Baath Party, the suffocating instrument of his rule. Early on, he drew not on the Sunni elite that held sway in Baghdad, cultivated by the Ottomans, then the British. He instead relied on the ranks of poor, disenfranchised Sunnis like himself, the neglected from cities such as Tikrit and Samarra.
In Tikrit -- a region that is home to the village of Auja where Hussein was born -- the nostalgia expressed in Fallujah is overshadowed by fear, a lurking sentiment that Hussein remains, that he might still return.
Even now, when many Iraqis revel in a newfound freedom of expression, Tikrit remains largely silent. As in the Baath Party days, residents responded to questions in monosyllabic answers, fearful of interviews with journalists. They pronounced the situation zain, fine.
"Some people are still afraid," said a 40-year-old engineering professor at Tikrit University, who asked that his name not be used. He pointed out a slogan on a white cement pedestal where a statue of Hussein once stood. "Anyone who deals with the Americans will be killed," it said. Nearby more graffiti read, "Bush, you dog, Saddam remains." The professor said the slogans had inspired fear, although it is not known who wrote them.
The people of Tikrit "are trying to avoid any problems," he said. "Because of the past, they are scared, and they don't trust anyone."
The U.S. military attributes the almost daily attacks on its forces to remnants of the Baath Party, and some residents suggest that its cadres remain underground and organized. Many of the attackers have used small arms or rocket-propelled grenades. But some of the attacks bear the hallmarks of relatively more sophisticated weaponry -- a remote-controlled explosive that killed a U.S. soldier near the Baghdad airport last week, for example, or a volley of mortars hurled at U.S. forces in Samarra the night after the wedding party spiraled into violence. After these incidents, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, declared that "the war has not ended."
In the void left by the ouster of Hussein, Arab nationalism, the ideology of the Baath Party, appears largely discredited. Some Iraqis quip that Hussein treated other Arabs better than he treated Iraqis -- he once imported entire Moroccan and Egyptian villages to farm Iraq's rich but fallow farms -- and he long aspired to be the region's strongman, viewing his country as the Prussia of the Arab world.
In Ramadi, a town 60 miles west of Baghdad, Sunni Muslims were furious at what they saw as Arab neutrality or even complicity in the U.S.-led invasion. "All the Arab countries are traitors!" shouted Salman Hayani, a 47-year-old teacher. A crowd gathered around him as people tried to outdo one another in their denunciations. "If I see a Kuwaiti, even a child, I will slaughter him," said Khaled Yassin.
Instead of Arab nationalism, a new religious fervor is evident in the town. At the Great Sheikh Abdel-Malik Mosque, worshipers filled the hall, spilling out the door in rows three deep. Along its walls were leaflets offering religious courses twice a week. "We should fight the invaders and the occupiers," declared the prayer leader, Sheik Anis Abdel-Halim.
In his sermon, he worried that Iraqi society had started to crumble since the government's collapse. He appealed to a Muslim tradition of charity and implored wealthy worshipers to help the poor. Businessmen should give to the disadvantaged, he said, and doctors should provide health care for free. Pharmacists should cut prices of prescriptions for the needy.
"Together we can overcome these obstacles and difficult times," he said. "Once we overcome them, God will be with us."
After the prayers, Hamad Qadduri stood in his auto parts store, a dusty hovel off a muddy street. Dressed in a white dishdasha, buttoned to the collar, he railed against the Baath Party for surrendering to the Americans, at Hussein for deserting Baghdad. He said he believed Iraqis, with principles and morals, grounded in faith, could have rid the country of Hussein.
The 51-year-old retired teacher called the Americans kaffirs, unbelievers.
"We can't like kaffirs, whatever services they provide us, whatever they do for us," he said. "This is our law."