BAGHDAD, Iraq – A top U.S. military official said Thursday that the Marines would retake Fallujah by “overwhelming” force if necessary, and that U.S. forces would track down the Iraqis who mutilated the bodies of four American civilian contractors in a frenzied celebration broadcast around the world.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt also challenged the town’s leaders to produce the guerrillas who killed the contractors, decrying Wednesday’s ambush and mutilation of the victims as symptoms of “a cancer inside the society of Iraq.”

In Washington, Bush administration officials vowed that they would not allow the attack to sway them from their goal of installing a democratic, indigenous government at the end of June. Similar images of bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia a decade ago.

“There are certainly areas of Iraq that remain dangerous, but we will not be deterred by these cowardly, hateful acts,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Fallujah itself was quiet Thursday. But an attack outside the city wounded three Marines, and their abandoned Humvee was set afire by joyous Iraqis. Army officials also said a car bombing Wednesday night in the nearby town of Ramadi had killed six Iraqi civilians and wounded four more.

As debate swirled in the United States about the political impact and the media coverage of the events in Fallujah, Iraqi police gathered the remains of the dead Americans to be handed over to U.S. forces. And U.S. military officials defended their decision not to mount an operation to rescue the bodies during Wednesday’s rioting, saying it could have made a dangerous situation even worse.

Some Iraqis expressed dismay at the image presented of their country and their people. Two of the burned bodies were strung up from a bridge by the mob.

“It represented the worst in savage behavior … neither Islamic, nor Arab, nor related to any of the values of this region,” said Samir Shakir Mahmoud, a Sunni businessman from western Iraq and a member of Iraq’s Governing Council. “It does not represent me and it does not represent Iraq. It represents the worst that the previous regime created in Iraq.”

Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, told a graduation ceremony for police cadets that the beatings, burnings and hangings of the corpses were “dramatic examples of the ongoing struggle between human dignity and barbarism.”

Bremer vowed that the deaths of the Americans, who were working as armed security consultants under a contract with the Pentagon, “will not go unpunished.”

Marines staffed checkpoints on key roads leading into Fallujah, about 35 miles west of Baghdad, and were turning back some vehicles. Residents waited for a next move by the Americans.

“We wish that they would try to enter Fallujah so we’d let hell break loose,” resident Ahmed al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press.

The man will get his wish, Kimmitt promised. Only the when and how had yet to be decided.

“We are not going to do a pell-mell rush into the city,” Kimmitt said. “It will be at a time and a place of our choosing. It will be methodical. It will be precise and it will be overwhelming.”

Kimmitt, the deputy director of U.S. military operations in Iraq, urged Iraqi authorities in Fallujah to “come out from behind their desks, tell us who these people are … and even better, perhaps imprison these people themselves.

“If they were to deliver these people to the criminal justice system, we will come back in and start the rebuilding of Fallujah,” the Army general said. “That is their choice. But we will be back in Fallujah. Fallujah will be pacified.”

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force took over jurisdiction of Fallujah and surrounding Al Anbar province last month, replacing the 82nd Airborne Division.

Residents say the Marines have been highly visible and assertive in their patrols, and they attribute an increase in clashes in the region to the more aggressive Marine posture.

A senior military official suggested it was the guerrillas who had been testing the troops upon their arrival. He rejected the idea that the heart of Fallujah had been abandoned “to some sort of festering rot” under the airborne troops. And he said the Marines were as interested as any other U.S. forces in the ultimate goal of rebuilding Iraq.

Kimmitt addressed the question of why Iraqi police and the U.S. Marines decided not to intervene for hours Wednesday as the mob danced in joy at the deaths of the Americans.

He said the troops would have arrived on the scene too late to save any lives.

They were concerned about ambushes or civilians being used as human shields. And they decided that an “attack into the city could have taken a bad situation and made it even worse.”

Lt. Eric Knapp, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division, said: “We are not going to over-react because the enemy is trying to bait us. … This does not change our mission or our resolve in Fallujah or the Al Anbar province.”

Knapp said that as of Thursday evening the Marines had received the remains of three of the four American dead.

Kimmitt dismissed the concern that the guerrillas and townspeople would be left with the impression that the Americans were scared of Fallujah or tolerant of violence.

“Ask them after the Americans have come back in,” the general said.

The threat of violence elsewhere in Iraq remains a concern for the occupation authorities and the interim Iraqi government. A trade exposition planned for next week in Baghdad and designed to draw foreign companies was postponed Thursday. Earlier this week, U.S. officials had warned American citizens that “given the current security situation in Iraq, it is not possible to guarantee the safety of U.S. citizens attending this event.”

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-01-04 1903EST

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