FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) – Two months after U.S. Marines pulled out, residents of Fallujah feel safe again, sleeping on their roofs to escape the heat without fear of the once-constant nighttime gunbattles, and traveling the streets without worrying they could be stopped or detained.

Fallujah, they say, is savoring its most peaceful spell in more than a year. U.S. forces camped on the city’s outskirts say they want to return to help out, but no one here is interested.

“If they come back, we’ll fight them and die with honor,” said Mohammed Hatem, 17, as he and a cousin prowled for pigeons to shoot with an air rifle they share.

His cousin, 15-year-old Youssef Joma’a, agreed: “We are improving our aim, so if the Americans return, we too can fight.”

Fallujah’s estimated 300,000 residents have a reputation for being tough, conservative and having little tolerance for outside authority, least of all foreign occupiers.

The U.S. military knows that. Since Saddam Hussein’s fall last year, Fallujah remained defiant as U.S. military units came and went.

The military tried getting tough with one hand and being sensitive with the other.

U.S. soldiers waged nighttime security sweeps, storming private homes in search for weapons and fighters.

They also painted schools, installed power generators and water pumps, and distributed candy and toys to children.

Nothing worked, and Fallujah turned into a daily battleground of fighting between mujahedeen, or holy warriors, and U.S. troops. With time, it earned a reputation for being the most hostile city to U.S. troops in Iraq.

Things came to a head in Fallujah soon after the March 31 killings of four U.S. contractors whose bodies were mutilated – two were hung from a bridge by an Iraqi mob. The incident led to a three-week siege of the city by the Marines during which heavy fighting took place.

The city began to see peace again when U.S. Marines lifted the siege and handed over security to a new “Fallujah Brigade” made up of local residents and commanded by officers from Saddam’s former army. Many of those who fought the Marines joined the brigade.

The mujahedeen, who led that fight, now wield vast influence in the city, aided by the perception that they gave Islam a rare victory over a superpower.

From an American perspective, the “Fallujah Brigade” experiment – billed at the time as “an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem” – has been a disaster.

The U.S. military now says Fallujah is a den of terrorists and a refuge for foreign Muslim fighters waging global jihad against America.

“We’d like to have access to Fallujah to get many planned, high impact economic and quality of life projects underway,” said Lt. Col. T.V. Johnson, a Marines spokesman in the Fallujah area. “The security conditions required for that type of work do not exist in the city.”

Yet fears that once the Marines left, the local militants would impose a strict interpretation of Islam proved exaggerated. Also proven unfounded were expectations that the mujahedeen would target U.S.-appointed officials – like the mayor and police chief – and kill Iraqis thought to have cooperated with the Americans. Instead, residents say the city is doing just fine.

The streets are patrolled by police and Fallujah Brigade members. Fighters wearing ammunition belts and armed with assault rifles help direct traffic. Charities have sprung up to help families of those killed during the fighting.

For the first time in months, a Friday sermon in a Fallujah mosque made no mention of the Americans, concentrating instead on a religious message: death comes when least expected, so every Muslim must be ready by performing all his religious duties.

In an implicit barb at the unelected government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Sheik Fawzi al-Obeidi ended his sermon at the Hamoud al-Mahmoud mosque with an unusual prayer “May God take away the Iraqis’ lust for power and authority.”

After the Americans left, “no one ordered me to grow a beard or tried to fight the growth of civil society in Fallujah,” said Maki al-Nazzal of the city’s Scientific and Cultural Forum, a non-governmental agency that promotes education and political and social awareness.

Speaking in a community center over the battle screams of children taking a kung fu class next door and the distant sound of an American jet flying over the city, al-Nazzal denied U.S. claims that Fallujah has become a center of terrorism.

Drawing on his experience during the fighting in April as a volunteer hospital manager, he said: “All I know is that our American liberators were sniping at civilians and the so-called terrorists were bringing them to the hospital to be treated and were donating blood.”

Nazzal and others in Fallujah say they cannot rule out the presence of a small number of foreign Muslim fighters in the city, but are adamant that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian suspected of masterminding bombings in Iraq, was not here.

The U.S. military has launched repeated airstrikes on suspected al-Zarqawi safehouses here.

“If you’re a Muslim who cares about the faith, you’ll come and fight the foreign occupier of a Muslim land,” said Ismail Khalil, a Sunni cleric. “It’s all the land of Islam, be it Syria, Egypt or Iraq. But the people who defended Fallujah are the city’s own sons.”

However, residents have recently taken to warning visitors against “criminal” kidnappers.

Fresh graffiti belonging to a shadowy group, The Islamic Response – 1920 Revolution Brigades, which said it had kidnapped U.S. Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun in Fallujah and later freed him, could be seen Thursday at the city center. It was painted over on Friday.

AP-ES-07-17-04 1311EDT

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