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Iraq insurgency seems to be gaining strength

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BAGHDAD — American military commanders Thursday said they would respond to the mutilation of four American contractors in the city of Fallujah by launching an overwhelming counteroffensive against Iraqi insurgents but would not rush in and make the situation worse.

Taking the unusual step of telegraphing their plans, military officials said that U.S. forces would soon return to the center of Fallujah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. They said they would rely on a combination of pinpoint raids and rewards for the local population that has helped quell unrest in some Iraqi cities.

U.S. forces recently ceded much of the control of the town to Iraqi police, even though it is in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, which has seen the most violent resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.

"We will be back in Fallujah," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said in Baghdad. "It will be at the time and place of our choosing. We will hunt down the criminals. We will kill them, or we will capture them. And we will pacify Fallujah."

On Thursday, American officials met with Fallujah's mayor and top clerics. American officials said the clerics promised to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, at Friday Prayer to condemn the ambush and the grisly aftermath. One of the gravest sins in Islam is desecrating the dead.

U.S. strategists have carefully painted the armed opposition in Iraq as a constellation of frustrated Ba'athists, former lieutenants of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, and Islamic terrorists from outside Iraq.

But the mob violence in Fallujah underscored how popular — and indigenous — Iraqi resistance has become over the past year.

While organized insurgents might have sprung the ambush that killed the four U.S. civilian security contractors who were driving through the city, it was a horde that seemed to be mostly teenage boys who doused the bodies in gasoline, mutilated them and then hung them as resistance trophies from the town's major bridge.

Even in other regions of the country, Iraqis seem to have a deep well of sympathy for those who kill Americans. The attackers are called mujahideen, or holy warriors, and considered freedom fighters.

L. Paul Bremer III, head of the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq, used his address to a class of graduating Iraqi police cadets Thursday to condemn the attacks, declaring the mob brutality beyond the pale.

"The acts we have seen were despicable and inexcusable," he said. "They violate the tenets of all religions, Islam included, as well as the foundations of civilized society. Their deaths will not go unpunished."

But it is unclear whether the coalition running Iraq knows who its targets really are.

"These are despicable people. They're a small minority of the Iraqi people," said Kimmitt, the military's spokesman. "And I suspect that most Iraqi people were as horrified with what they saw Thursday because they realized that that is painting the entire country of Iraq with a very wide brush."

But in Baghdad on Wednesday after the violence in Fallujah, tens of thousands of supporters of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated outside the occupation's headquarters, burning a U.S. flag and pointing at the soldiers on the perimeter, chanting, "You're next."

Abu Ali, a soda vendor who did not leave his perch outside the Green Zone gate during Wednesday's protest, said Thursday that the resistance in Fallujah had provided a compass for occupied Iraq. The most recent violence, he said, would inspire Iraqis nationwide.

"They are brave. We should do the same," Abu Ali said. "It is OK as long as it is Iraqis fighting for their country."

Others in Baghdad expressed shock at the Wednesday violence but attributed the events to anger against U.S. forces in the tribal society that has a strong hold in Fallujah.

"Revenge is worshiped there," said Dr. Omar Azzawi, an internist at Karkh Hospital who lives in Baghdad but who, like most Iraqis, has roots in a rural tribe.

The family of someone killed by U.S. forces is culturally obligated to hit back, he added. "You will not sit with the tribe, you will not drink their coffee, until you take your revenge."

"I don't believe Iraqis did it," he said, when he learned of Wednesday's violence. "If they did, something must have happened to provoke them."

Some witnesses to the Wednesday attack suggested that residents of Fallujah had been angered by the deaths of several civilians during a battle between Marines and insurgents last Friday.

Consistently, however, spokesmen for U.S. forces attribute killings to "bitter-enders," a small minority desperate to derail Iraq's progress to sovereign democracy on June 30.

Shortly after the Wednesday attack, Kimmitt described Fallujah, a former bastion of Hussein's Ba'ath Party, as "one of those cities in Iraq that just don't get it."

The fighters regularly ambush Americans in the area, like those who injured three U.S. soldiers in a roadside bomb attack Thursday. Residents later torched a Humvee abandoned by the soldiers.

"It is a small minority of the people in Fallujah," Kimmitt said. "Most of the people in Fallujah want to move on with their lives. . . . There's a small core element that doesn't seem to get it. They're desperate to try to hold out, desperate to try to turn back the hands of time, and that just isn't going to happen."

But another coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said counterinsurgency specialists in Iraq believe popular anger extends far beyond a small minority — in Fallujah, he said, "the whole city" sympathizes with the insurgents — and are crafting strategies to deal with it.

Nevertheless, the official said, popular resistance will persist until the occupation cedes control to Iraqis.

Officially, the Coalition Provisional Authority that runs Iraq has taken a similar position, saying attacks on the military as well as on Iraqis will rise until June 30.

Then, officials believe, attacks will decline because the alliance of Islamic terrorists and "former regime elements" spearheading the attacks, according to U.S. officials, no longer will be fighting an occupation government.

The central piece of evidence U.S. officials have produced for this line of analysis is a letter from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian linked to al-Qaida, released almost two months ago. The Zarqawi letter lays out a strategy to derail Iraq's movement toward democracy through terror attacks on symbolic targets.

Officials hold Zarqawi responsible for some of the most spectacular attacks, including the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last August. They have also mentioned him as a possible suspect in the March 2 bombings in Karbala and Baghdad that killed at least 181 Shi'ite pilgrims and the Feb. 1 suicide bombings that killed 109 at a Kurdish party headquarters in Erbil.

But recently, spokesmen for the U.S.-led coalition have acknowledged that all those responsible for insurgent violence cannot be placed into rigid categories such as Ba'athist or Islamist.

"This is a cancer inside the society of Iraq that shows no indication of leaving any time soon," Kimmitt said Thursday. "Although small, it's a malignant cancer, and we need to take care of this together with the people of Iraq, the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces because unless it is dealt with, it does have the chance and does have the possibility of getting larger."

While Fallujah grabbed most of the headlines Thursday, a car bomb at a market in Ramadi killed six Iraqi civilians. In recent weeks, violence has hit the southern city of Basra, and a spate of fatal attacks has occurred in the northern city of Mosul.

A senior military official said recently that it is unclear how much of the violence is political and how much is street crime. He added that there is no evidence of a significant increase in the number of attacks.

But the perceptions of the most recent violence in the country suggest that many Iraqis see a groundswell of popular resistance.

On the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, which is widely watched in Iraq, political analyst Thafer al Ani said the Fallujah mob did not necessarily consist of Hussein supporters.

"It is simply people who are resisting the illegal occupation," he said, adding of Fallujah, "For a revolution to start, there has to be a place where it erupts."

A newscaster on the network explained the attack Thursday on the U.S. convoy by saying "the occupation lasted too long."

Mustafa Saadi Hamza, 38, a former lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi military who spends his afternoons wandering the streets of the Saidiya neighborhood looking for a job, read deep meaning into the Fallujah mob's actions, which he described as "ugly" and against the values of Islam.

"They had a message to show Americans what they can do," Hamza said. "These are not resistance fighters. This is regular people who want to scare the Americans."

Contributing: Bryan Bender, Boston Globe; New York Times News Service