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Fallujah is front line; no one is sure why

This city's pro-American mayor is on the run after his office was gutted by a bomb. The four-lane main street is lined with craters and patches of charred pavement from almost daily attacks on U.S. military convoys. A cornfield a few miles to the southwest is littered with the wreckage of an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter that was brought down Sunday with a shoulder-fired missile.

Six months after President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq, this deeply traditional Sunni Muslim city on the Euphrates River has become the most intense battleground between American troops and the forces seeking to end the U.S. occupation.

There is little agreement between American commanders and local leaders about why Fallujah, where violence had been ebbing over the summer, now is such a flash point. Officers with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which arrived two months ago, contend their predecessors were not aggressive enough in rooting out resistance fighters. The city's tribal sheiks take the opposite view, maintaining that the 82nd Airborne's hard-nosed tactics have alienated residents and fueled more anger at the U.S. occupation.

"Fallujah has now become the battlefield for all Iraq," said Mustafa Naji, 19, a religious student. "Everyone is coming here to fight."

American and Iraqi officials say they believe resistance forces in Fallujah comprise a combination of Iraqis loyal to former President Saddam Hussein, Islamic extremists and foreign militants, many of whom were drawn to Fallujah after clashes between residents and American soldiers transformed this trading post about 30 miles west of Baghdad into a front line in the resistance.

Seeking to counter those forces are about 1,000 paratroops from the 82nd Airborne. Instead of driving around the city in armored personnel carriers and entrusting security duties to Iraqi police officers and militiamen _ as other units occupying the city did _ they have swept through the bustling market and residential neighborhoods with foot patrols, conducting surprise searches and raids with a greater frequency.

"I expect to get attacked every day _ every single day," said Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 82nd Airborne's 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which is responsible for securing Fallujah and its surrounding area.

But the 82nd Airborne's strategy, backed at the highest levels of the U.S. military, has rankled some of Fallujah's senior tribal sheiks _ the city's effective power brokers _ who maintain it is creating more enemies that it is eliminating.

"The Americans are wrong," said Khamis Hassnawi, the city's senior tribal leader. "Using more force will not solve the problems here."