They live beneath old fly-blown tents in the car-park of the Mustafa mosque and their canvas-roofed kitchen stands next to a pool of raw sewage, but the refugees from Fallujah will not return home.
First, because many have no homes to go to; second, because they are – with the encouragement of local clerics – listing a series of demands that include the withdrawal of all American soldiers from the city, the maintenance of security by Fallujans themselves, massive compensation payments and the return of money and valuables which those who have just visited Fallujah say were stolen by American troops.
And they are very definitely not going to vote in the 30 January elections. Squatting on the floor of his concrete-walled office in his black robes to eat a lunch of chicken and rice, Sheikh Hussein – he pleads with me not to print his family name – insists that his people are not against elections.
“We are not rejecting this election for the sake of it,” he says. “We are rejecting it because it is the ‘tent’ of the occupation. It is the vehicle for the Americans to ensure that [interim President Iyad] Allawi gets back in. And we are still under occupation.”
A bearded and bespectacled academic is sitting beside the sheikh, Dr Abdul-Kader of the department of Islamic Science at Baghdad University, who gravely reminds me of the civilian dead of Fallujah. “There were hundreds,” he says. “We found bodies in homes and graves in the gardens of homes.”
The sheikh’s closest relatives live in Fallujah; his own Sunni mosque lies at the centre of the camp in Baghdad where 925 of Fallujah’s 200,000 refugees are living. But he says he has travelled twice to his family’s homes and tells a disturbing story of what he found. “The first time I visited after the Americans occupied the city, our main house was standing. It had survived. All the things inside, beds, furniture, rugs, were safe. But when I went back a week later, it had been destroyed. Many other houses were in the same state.
“They survived the American-resistance battles intact but were then destroyed afterwards. Why? People there told me they saw movie cameras and that the Americans fired shells into the empty houses and that they were making some kind of film.”
Tales of American theft in Iraqi cities are not new. Amnesty International has listed numerous incidents in which US troops took money from homes or from the clothes of arrested men. The US authorities acknowledged one case of large-scale pilfering by a young American officer south of Baghdad in 2003 but said that he had been moved out of Iraq and would be “too difficult” to trace.
The stories of looting in Fallujah are only adding to the refugees’ sense of grievance. And to the over-enthusiastic demands for compensation. “We will settle for $5bn (£2.7bn) to $10bn,” Sheikh Hussein says. “This is for the destruction in Fallujah, the shedding of blood and the killing of innocents; history will write of this. The Americans started off by killing native Americans and still they kill people they look down on.” Everyone in the room, including a student of computer sciences from Fallujah who has so far listened in total silence, vigorously nod their heads.
“One day,” the sheikh continues, “I was stopped and taken to an American base and questioned by the CIA, and they said, ‘You are a religious man and we want advice’. I said, ‘What I want to tell you is not to enter the cities because the people are waiting for a chance to attack you. They will make you suffer in different ways. Pull out your troops to the deserts, far away from the gunfire of the resistance, though that stretches a long way’. But they were very, very stupid. They didn’t take the chance to go out. They stayed to force us to have elections so they could get out and leave their agents in power. I say this; the American troops will retreat suddenly, or they will find themselves prisoners inside the trap of Iraq.
“You know, you Westerners laugh at us Easterners, especially when we say, ‘If Allah wills’. But the Prophet – peace be upon him – once said that the Iraqis would be scourged, that they would not receive a single dirham or a grain of rice in the hand, and this happened in the economic embargo of the 1990s.
“Then America came here after 9 April, 2003, with all its power and soldiers, so proud of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But now the morale of these soldiers is rotting each day. They have psychological problems. My advice to them is to leave. They have a choice to make: they must leave or they will be forced out.”
Fighting continues each night in Fallujah despite American claims of victory and to be “breaking the back” of the insurgency. As the sheikh puts it, not without some humour: “The Americans move in the streets during the day from 6am to 6pm but they do not move when the muqawama (resistance) imposes its own curfew on them between 6pm and 6am.”
Outside in the windy car-park, the tents flap and the refugees queue to take soup from a 4ft-deep cauldron of yellow, scummy soup. Bags of dates have broken open and spilled on to the concrete.
It is Fallujah in miniature. Twenty teachers from the city are now running a camp school for 120 children. Doctors see patients in the sheikh’s private home. A great-grandfather in the camp says he cannot go back to his city while the Americans are there. And when I ask him if he will vote, he laughs at me. “The Americans must leave Fallujah unconditionally,” the sheikh says. “They have done too much harm there to be accepted.”
I suggest that Fallujah’s troubles started the day the 82nd Airborne killed 18 protesters outside a local school just after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Dr Abdul-Kader admonishes me. “It started even before that,” he says. “Fallujah people suffered under Saddam and they liberated their own city. They did not do so to live under occupation.”
ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.