FALLUJA: In the dining hall at Camp Volturno on the outskirts of Falluja, the newcomers to Taskforce 1 Panther of the US 82nd Airborne Division sit quietly as they listen to their welcome brief. They are big men, barrel-chested from pushing weights, heads shaved to stubble or tiny Tintin fins.

Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Drinkwine, the battalion commander, begins the briefing that will colour these young soldiers' perceptions of the town two miles beyond their compound's walls. The senior non-commissioned officers will tell these boys Falluja is the most "dangerous place on earth".

"Falluja is the centrepoint of the war," says Drinkwine, a solid man in his late thirties. "You got to be steely-eyed out there," he said. "There are a good people down there and in the midst of them are a handful of evildoers.

"We have told the local leaders we know that there are evildoers. But we are not here to spray up the town. We say: 'You shoot an RPG, you can expect some steely-eyed killers who will kill or capture you'."

Then the new boys see Falluja for the first time, projected on the mess hall screen, an aerial map of a small, ugly city nestling in a bend of the Euphrates, and bisected neatly by the line of Highway 10, which the soldiers call the "highway of death".

It is this road that defines the American war in Falluja, and two locations in particular. The first is just to the east, where Highway 10 loops in a large four-spiralled interchange that the 82nd call the "Cloverleaf".

The second is on the other side of the city, where Highway 10 crosses the Euphrates by what Iraqis call the "new" bridge, but what Taskforce 1 Panther has dubbed "George Washington Bridge" and the "triangle of death".

At these two locations the Iraqi resistance has waged most fiercely its war against the United States with ambushes and improvised landmines. Drinkwine leaves it to his battalion intelligence officer, Captain Gary Love, to fill in the picture. Love brings up a second map in which the city is sectored into areas of colour. Predominant is red. "The red," says Captain Love, "is high threat. That is two-thirds of the city. I want you to notice that there is no green," he says.

And in the last 10 days the resistance has produced a series of spectacular attacks, bringing down two helicopters near the city in two separate incidents, killing nine US personnel inside, and also murdering two French contractors working for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The members of Taskforce 1 Panther need little reminding of the dangers as they sit in a dining hall dedicated to the memory of Staff Sergeant Paul Johnson, killed just 500 metres from the camp's gate in an attack that wounded seven other members of Alpha Company.

A father of one from Calumet, Michigan, Johnson, 29, was driving his Humvee in the "Cloverleaf" just after noon on 20 October. The squad leader probably did not notice the 50-gallon oil drum by the roadside. It was packed with explosives and rigged with a remote control device. When it detonated next to his vehicle, the paratrooper died instantly.

But if the attack on Johnson's squad was traumatizing for the men of Camp Volturno, it was eclipsed, a fortnight later, by an event that turned Falluja, for the Americans, into the most infamous place in Iraq: the shooting down of a Chinook packed with US soldiers going on leave.

At 9am on Nov 2 two of the vast twin-bladed helicopters took off from Habbaniya, a few miles up the road from Falluja, on what should have been a routine flight to Baghdad airport, barely 40 miles away.

It was a short hop for the two crews that would take them over the strange and ugly hinterland of the Sunni triangle: a place of dusty fields, dykes and fetid ponds.

As the helicopters flew above a stand of date palms near the village of Buissa, Iraqi fighters hidden in the trees fired two shoulder-launched Strella anti-aircraft missiles which locked on to the heat of one of the engines, sending the aircraft crashing to the ground. It was Drinkwine's men who later collected the bodies.

Such violence did not arise from a vacuum. The violence in Falluja - the city which gave birth to Iraq's resistance - exploded against the background of a series of disastrous shootings of civilians by soldiers from 82nd Airborne inside the city. These incidents stoked popular sentiment in favour of the fledgling guerrilla movement at a time when it was in most need of support.

The A-Qaid Primary School sits a little south of Highway 10, set back behind a 7ft-high wall. It is a large building by Falluja standards, and easily defendable.

Crucially it afforded the soldiers of Charlie Company of the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne, who occupied it in mid-April, sweeping views across that section of the city.

When the 82nd arrived it was into a city that had held together while Iraq was disintegrating in an orgy of looting. By the time that US troops entered Falluja on April 23, tribal and religious leaders had taken control, and resented their presence. The people of Falluja found the Americans aggressive, arrogant and alien, a problem exacerbated by a widely disseminated rumour that they could see through women's clothing with their night vision goggles.

By April 28 - Saddam Hussein's birthday - those tensions had fatally collided in an event that has become Iraq's equivalent to Northern Ireland's Bloody Sunday.

Charlie Company of the 2nd Brigade in the school was on high alert. There had already been gunfire in the town. At 10pm a demonstration of several hundred people arrived outside the school to protest about the presence of the troops within its walls.

As the crowd approached, soldiers of the 82nd, armed with machine guns and carbines, were deployed on the roof and at windows. What happened next is still in dispute. According to Human Rights Watch, which published the most definitive account of the slaughter that would follow, none of the demonstrators had a weapon.

But the American soldiers, interviewed by the charity, claim that as the crowd approached they could hear firing becoming louder, and noticed several gunmen positioned on the roofs of the houses opposite.

Though the US soldiers believed they came under "effective" fire, Human Rights Watch believes they may have mistaken the sound of windows being broken by thrown rocks for gunfire hitting their positions.

The soldiers fired with indiscriminate force that left 16 Iraqis dead and dozens more injured - and the US killings in Falluja go on. I met the survivors from two other multiple shootings of civilians by the 82nd in the city, including eight members of Iraq's Police Service killed by Drinkwine's men pursuing suspected car-jackers.

But if the trigger-happy reputation of the 82nd has pushed many from what Drinkwine concedes was a "sullen resentment" towards the invasion to active support of the resistance, it is still not quite enough to explain what is happening here.-Dawn/The Observer News Service.

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