FALLUJAH, Iraq — A cleric on Friday condemned the mutilation of four slain American contractors in this defiant Muslim city, but did not criticize the killings.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, promised to hunt down those responsible but said clashes could be avoided if city officials act promptly against the insurgents. No U.S. forces were seen in the city, 35 miles west of Baghdad.
Sheik Fawzi Nameq spoke during weekly prayers at the Hmood al-Mahmood Mosque, a few blocks from the scene of the deadly ambush that killed the four contractors, whose charred remains were dragged through the streets.
“Islam does not condone the mutilation of the bodies of the dead,” he told some 600 worshippers. “Why do you want to bring destruction to our city? Why do you want to bring humiliation to the faithful? My brothers, wisdom is required here.”
Clerics in Fallujah strongly oppose the U.S.-led occupation and often use sermons to criticize American authority.
Pledge to hunt down insurgents
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt pledged to hunt down those who carried out Wednesday’s killings — but he added that clashes could be avoided if Fallujah city officials arrest those responsible for the murders.
“Is there going to be a fight? ... You should ask the insurgents. ... You should ask the governors and the mayor inside Fallujah. If they were to deliver these people to the criminal justice system, we will come back in and start the rebuilding of Fallujah. That is their choice,” he said.
A Fallujah city council member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the council met late Thursday and issued a statement “condemning the mutilation of the bodies in the streets because it contradicts the teachings of Islam and it is unacceptable in the religious point of view.” He did not say whether a decision was made to take action against those responsible for the killings.Video: U.S. vows revenge
The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council also issued a statement condemning “the cold blooded slaughter and mutilation of civilians” and vowed that “those murderers who carried out these terrorist acts will not hinder or disrupt the march of our people toward the dawn of freedom and democracy.”
Police on Friday were manning regular roadside checkpoints and there was no sign of U.S. troops in or around the city. American commanders have said they would act “at the time and place of our choosing.”
Violence continued elsewhere in the country, nearly a year after the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In the city of Baqouba, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, gunmen fired on two police cars late Thursday, killing three officers and wounding two, said Loua’ie Adel, an official at Baqouba General Hospital.
No troops sent into Fallujah
U.S. commanders have defended their decision not to send forces into Fallujah on Wednesday to retrieve the remains of the victims. Two of the corpses were hung from a bridge as people beat them with shoes and a pole. Iraqi police eventually collected the remains of the four at the request of American troops.
Kimmitt said U.S. forces didn’t respond for fear of ambushes and the possibility that insurgents would use civilians as human shields. “A pre-emptive attack into the city could have taken a bad situation and made it even worse,” he said.
“We are not going to do a pell-mell rush into the city. It will be deliberate, it will be precise and it will be overwhelming. ... We will plan our way through this and we will re-establish control of that city. ... It will be at the time and place of our choosing,” he said.
Fallujah residents said Thursday they were ready to take on the Americans if they try to enter the city.
“We wish that they would try to enter Fallujah so we’d let hell break loose,” Ahmed al-Dulaimi said. “We will not let any foreigner enter Fallujah,” said Sameer Sami. “Yesterday’s attack is proof of how much we hate the Americans.”
Fallujah has been the scene of some of the worst violence since the beginning of the U.S.-led occupation a year ago. The city was a stronghold of support for Saddam. Militant forces appear to enjoy the support — or at least acquiescence — of a significant part of the population.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said the attacks have stepped up in Iraq over the last few weeks and have reflected more sophistication and planning.
The official said it was unclear who is responsible, though Baath party remnants, Iraqi intelligence figures, associates of al-Qaida-linked Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or Sunni extremists are among the possibilities.
Last month, U.S. Marines took over authority of Fallujah and surrounding areas from the 82nd Airborne Division and conducted patrols that led to fierce firefights in the city.
NBC’s Robert Windrem, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.