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In Falluja, Iraqi forces riven by sectarianism

Written by: Staff
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FALLUJA, Iraq, Mar 25: If all goes to plan, U S-trained Iraqi troops and police will work together, gain the trust of volatile cities like Falluja and battle insurgents on their own as the Americans gradually withdraw troops.

But, judging by the mood of this former rebel stronghold west of Baghdad, that is wishful thinking.

Iraqi soldiers and police, charged with making sure al Qaeda-linked militants and Saddam Hussein loyalists who once took over the city never return, are deeply divided, raising questions about the prospects of stability.

This week, the mostly Arab Sunni police staged a strike to protest what they said were abuses committed by Shi'ite Muslim soldiers. The police have returned to their posts, but the mistrust remains.

''The soldiers attacked a 17-year-old grocer and took him away to an area where he was found dead two hours later,'' said a police major, who asked not to be named. He said th youth had been shot in the eye and his stomach ripped open.

There was no way to independently verify the account but facts rarely matter in Iraq's chaos, where word of kidnappings and killings are all it takes to fuel sectarian violence.

A surge in communal bloodshed since the bombing of a major Shi'ite mosque on February 22 has raised fears of civil war.

An Iraqi army official in Baghdad said any abuses in Falluja were isolated incidents.

''If there are abuses they are carried out by individuals and do not reflect the policy of the Iraqi army. Soldiers are under orders to treat people with respect,'' said the official.

Iraqi leaders and US officials hope Iraqi security forces can eventually stabilise the country themselves, with any U.S.

troop withdrawal hinging on their ability to combat the Sunni Arab insurgency and spreading sectarian violence.

Saddam loyalists and Islamist militants were crushed in a U.S. offensive on Falluja in 2004 that was designed to stabilise the city and hand it over to local forces, but resentment towards Iraqi soldiers remains and is growing.

''The army raided my shop a few days ago and they beat and kicked me,'' said Alaa Majeed, a mobile telephone dealer. ''They stole my money and the mobiles I had left. I closed my shop because I don't want to be robbed again.''

''OUTSIDERS'' Residents support the estimated 1,200 policemen mainly because they are Sunnis from Falluja, but they loathe the soldiers, who are Shi'ites from other towns and are seen as close to Iraq's former war foe, Shi'ite neighbour Iran. ''They are sectarian people and most of them speak Farsi. We think the Americans have more mercy than they do,'' said Nawaf Alwan, 43, a businessman in the city.

Residents say Falluja, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad, is still recovering from the 2004 US air strikes, artillery and tank fire that left most of the city in ruins.

The Iraqi government and the US military hoped the offensive would deter rebels from trying to take over other towns, but Iraqi soldiers say insurgents have crept back.

Aside from renewed violence, residents complain of sporadic electricity, poor water supplies and slow reconstruction.

But one of their biggest problem appears to be the Iraqi forces charged with protecting them.

''As long as Iraqi army troops are in our city we will never see any security or feel any relief. Most attacks are carried out by them because they do not want to see any stability here,'' said Fahd Saadoun, 30, a teacher.

REUTERS

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