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Men fighting US are holy warriors, says Sunni cleric

Falluja, Sept. 17 (Reuters): Sheikh Khaled Saleh, a fiery Iraqi Sunni cleric, says the young angry men battling US troops in the violent town of Falluja are holy warriors who look to Osama bin Laden as their mentor.

“Although unorganised and without leadership, the Iraqi resistance is a ball of fire in America’s face that will bring its end in Iraq,” said the 53-year-old cleric, whose sermons draw thousands in the main Badawi mosque, one of over 70 mosques in the centre of Falluja.

The cleric said growing numbers of young men in Falluja were influenced by bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi militant behind the shadowy al Qaida network blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.

The city of almost 500,000 people, 70 km west of Baghdad, lies in the Sunni triangle, a bedrock of support for deposed leader Saddam Hussein and anti-US resistance.

In recent weeks, it has seen some of the fiercest clashes with US forces, with ambushes on convoys by unknown attackers using explosives.

“We have made the Americans dizzy,” said the cleric at his home in the town, known by its inhabitants as the “City of Mosques”. Residents are coy about the identity of the men who spray walls with pro-Saddam graffiti and encourage citizens to kill American troops.

The latest public messages were posters plastered across the city that warned residents to stay far from US convoys to avoid being hit. One slogan scrawled on the wall of the busy open market read: “Our leader Saddam Hussein will return.”

Residents of the conservative tribal region insist the fighters are driven by a thirst for revenge against heavy-handed tactics by American troops. “They are moved by national pride and honour to protect their homes,” said Hisham Alousi, who runs a religious school for mosque preachers. In a city that saw Saddam, a Sunni, as protector, locals say the attacks have struck fear into the Americans.

“The Americans are cowards and now they are afraid of any gunshot from any strange quarter,” said Fadl Ibrahim. Local anger was inflamed even further when 10 Iraqi security officers and a Jordanian were killed in a gunbattle with US troops last week.

The U.S. military apologised for the incident.

Many locals recall a history of resistance to foreign conquerors, saying the Americans would meet the fate of their predecessors.

”This is the 21st fall of Baghdad and at every turn the invaders were repulsed here at the heart of Arab world,” said Ahmad Said, a former army officer in Saddam's now-defunct army.

For many of Falluja's residents, Saddam remains an Arab warrior who fought for Iraq's glory.

”It's a crime that President Saddam should go. He was everything for us, our father who gave us everything,” Mohammad Shaker said.

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