FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Sunni fighter Abu Mujahid lost a leg battling U.S. Marines in the Iraqi city of Falluja, scene of some of the fiercest battles of the Iraq war.
Small pieces of shrapnel still pit his skull and scars decorate his body after a missile strike in 2004 by a U.S. warplane on the city in the western province of Anbar -- Iraq’s Sunni heartland and once a stomping ground for al Qaeda..
“Yes, we fought them to the death and we dreamed of the day when they would leave Iraq,” he said, laying aside a crutch as he sat down on a plastic chair in his house.
“But their withdrawal at this time is not in Iraq’s interest,” Abu Mujahid said.
His views echo widespread fears for the future among once dominant Sunnis, many of whom joined the insurgency after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion but now fear the departure of U.S. forces will cement Shi‘ite Muslim -- and Iranian -- domination.
U.S. forces will not leave Iraq for another 16 months, the deadline for a complete withdrawal set in a bilateral security pact signed by former President George W. Bush in 2008.
But the U.S. military formally ends combat operations and limits it numbers to 50,000 on August 31, down from a peak of around 170,000 three years ago when the sectarian warfare unleashed after the invasion reached a frightening peak.
The remaining U.S. troops in Iraq will focus on advising and assisting their Iraqi counterparts, playing a back-seat yet still significant role in the continuing fight against an al Qaeda-led Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi‘ite militia.
Many Iraqis have mixed feelings about the gradual U.S. withdrawal.
Any initial jubilation over the fall of Saddam Hussein and his suppressive Baath party regime quickly turned to horror when sectarian war ignited and spread.
‘CRIMINALS AND DEVILS’
Tens of thousands were killed and Iraq 7-1/2 years on is a rubble-strewn and dusty wreck, where public electricity only lasts a few hours per day, government bureaucracy is an opaque and corruption-riddled maze and jobs are painfully scarce.
“I can’t describe how happy I will be when they leave our country,” said Khalida Mohammed, 30, a teacher whose husband was one of several civilians killed in Falluja in 2006 when U.S. soldiers opened fire on cars that had driven close to a convoy.
“Every U.S. soldier in our country is a criminal and a devil. No one wants them,” Mohammed said.
Sunnis who ruled Iraq under Saddam saw their control wrested away by a once oppressed Shi‘ite majority after the fall of the Sunni dictator.
As the United States pulls out, some fear there will be nothing to protect them against vengeance or discrimination. Others fear they will lose any chance of regaining their once unchallenged political clout.
And many worry that the void vacated by the U.S. forces will be swiftly filled by Shi‘ite power Iran, the Arab world’s arch-foe, and that the U.S. invasion will be followed by a less visible but equally demoralising chapter of Persian influence.
Abu Mujahid’s battlefield wounds occurred in April 2004 in the first assault by U.S. troops to rid Falluja of a fierce insurgency that was also being supported by al Qaeda fighters streaming into the country from abroad.
The attack, led by U.S, Marines, was launched after four private security contractors working for the controversial U.S. firm Blackwater were killed by a mob.
“Look at my head. See, come on, put your hand here to touch them. These are two pieces of shrapnel,” Abu Mujahid said, reaching for his skull. “Look at what remains of my leg, my hands. These are all shrapnel wounds,” he said proudly.
“Shall I take off my clothes to show you how many shrapnel wounds I have on my body?”
In those early days of the war U.S. forces used overwhelming force to defeat opposition, using tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships to pound areas where insurgents holed up into the dust and leaving being little but bullet-marked ruins.
The first assault on Falluja and a second assault later that same year killed hundreds of fighters and civilians and forced thousands of people to flee.
Many of the bullet holes remain visible and ruined buildings still abound in Falluja, fuelling a lingering anger among some of the residents against the United States.
Scepticism runs deep about American intentions.
Not everyone in Iraq believes President Barack Obama’s promise to U.S. voters to stick to the withdrawal timeline agreed to in the security pact. Surely America paid too high a price in blood and treasure -- more than 4,400 soldiers killed and a trillion dollars gone -- to just walk away?
“Why should I believe them when they talk about withdrawing? They said they would bring democracy, stability and services to Iraq. What was achieved? Nothing,” said taxi driver Yaser Zaidan, waiting for passengers at the fortified entrance of Falluja.
“America will not leave this cake behind simply because they paid such a high price to come to Iraq.”
The assaults on Falluja did not prevent Anbar province from falling under the sway of al Qaeda.
The militant group was only driven out when Anbar’s tribal chieftains started turning on it in 2006, realising it was threatening their authority. They decided to ally themselves with U.S. forces instead -- turning foes into friends.
“We did not go to fight them. They came to fight us. God says fight those who fight you. Shame on them that they did not differentiate between the fighters and the civilians when their jets attacked the city,” Abu Mujahid said of the U.S. troops.
“But nevertheless, I swear we gave them a lesson they will never forget it,” he added.
Editing by Michael Christie