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.
"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.
President Bush, he said, "knows that and so does the government, but they purposely group all three under the tag of 'terrorism.' "
Barra and other insurgent leaders said the "genuine resistance" is a disciplined force that restricts its attacks to military targets, chiefly U.S. forces. It is motivated, they say, by Iraqi nationalism and humiliation over what it regards as a foreign occupation.
"The others," Barra said, "are Arab Salafis who claim that any Iraqi or Muslim not willing to carry arms is an infidel. They are the crux of our ailment. Most of them are Saudis, Syrians" and North Africans. Salafism is a strain of Islam that seeks to restore the faith to the way it was in the days of the prophet Muhammad, 14 centuries ago.
"It is the Zarqawis and his Salafi group who are going to lead Fallujah, Samarra, Baqubah, Mosul and even some parts of Baghdad to disaster and death," Barra said.
Such worries are encouraged by U.S. and Iraqi officials, who together have mounted offensives in recent weeks to reclaim areas held by insurgents. U.S. forces have led battles to take Najaf, Tall Afar, Samarra and, last week, a string of towns southwest of Baghdad. The operations are intended to establish government control over the entire country before nationwide elections promised for January.
But they also serve, officials say, as a psychological lever on Fallujah, long considered the toughest insurgent outpost.
"The pressure is certainly going up, both as a result of our airstrikes and as a result of their seeing Najaf, Tall Afar, Samarra giving a sense this whole thing is serious," a senior U.S. official in Baghdad said. "There's a lot of fear in Fallujah."
Many residents say the same. A delegation of six prominent Fallujans began negotiating with Iraq's interim government late last month. But senior government officials said it was only after the Oct. 1 assault on Samarra that the Fallujah delegation approached the task with new zeal.
The proposal the delegation took back to Fallujah calls for surrendering control of the city to the Iraqi National Guard. U.S. forces would remain outside the city unless the lightly armed government forces were attacked.
But first, all foreign fighters must leave the city, and the foreigners are adamantly and publicly opposing the plan. Their representative voted against it in a meeting last week of the city's ruling mujaheddin shura, or council of holy warriors, which supported the peace proposal, 10 to 2. The local insurgent who cast the other negative vote was later persuaded to change his mind, residents say.
Foreign fighters already are blamed for violating a cease-fire in April and prompting a Marine offensive that killed hundreds. Dulaimy said a Syrian was slain by local insurgents "after he fired on American forces during the last truce." In remarks broadcast from one of the city's main mosques on Thursday, an insurgent negotiator, Khalid Hamoud Jumaili, said a city of several hundred thousand should not be sacrificed for a handful of foreign fighters.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces kept up military pressure Tuesday in several nearby cities. Marines raided eight mosques allegedly used as armed bases in Ramadi, a provincial capital about 25 miles west of Fallujah, and called in airstrikes in the town of Hit, about 60 miles to the northwest.
"I think there is unquestionably a fissure and there are probably several different splits based on different groups," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his remarks were not cleared by Washington. But "whether any of the townspeople have enough force to make this fissure into something that changes the complexion of things" remains to be seen, the official said.
The assault on Samarra was mounted after a more unified local establishment headed by tribal leaders failed in a similar bid to eject a far smaller band of insurgents and foreign fighters than are holding Fallujah, the official noted.
Maki Nazzal, a Fallujah native who travels into the city frequently as an aid worker, said substantial support remains for the foreigners, especially given the number of civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes.
"Not all the people in Fallujah want these people to leave," Nazzal said. "They always have the explanation of Americans bringing people from Spain, Salvador, Poland and over the world to help them and why can't our brothers help us?"
Some foreign fighters already have left, at least for now. The fighting Tuesday in Hit erupted as Marines pursued insurgents who had recently arrived in the city from Fallujah, residents said.
"There are Arab fighters and Iraqis too," said Omar Jabbawi, 23, an engineering student at Anbar University. "They are supplied with modern weapons which even the modern army didn't have. They killed some of the people the moment they came, saying that they were spies for the Americans."
The blend of insurgents held the town, some patrolling a street of shuttered stores, others praying on the sidewalk.
"Most of the people of the city knew that after Fallujah, the fighters will come to Hit because it is an open city and has many wide woods in which maneuvering is easy," said Abeer Fadhill, 32, a traffic policeman.
A woman in Hit said one fighter had said they had come to liberate Hit as they had Fallujah.
"We don't want to be another Fallujah," said the woman, 45, who gave her name as Umm Hussein. "Ramadan is coming, and we don't have any will to lose a father, a son, a relative or even a friend. Let them leave in peace and fight in a desert away from houses and people."