Iraq's al-Sharqiya TV said on Friday that locals bussed back into the destroyed city saw the US army knocking over even more homes.

The report added: "Search operations began in the city's east, where each house was either marked with an X or an X inside a circle. X meant the house was safe, where as the circle symbolised the house was a source of danger and was to be demolished."

Speaking to Aljazeera on Saturday, Iraqi journalist Fadil al-Badrani added that a few who returned last week - and had been happy to find their houses mostly intact - watched in disbelief as US forces pushed their homes over in the past four days.

And al-Badrani said disbelief and shock was turning to anger. On Saturday, thousands of furious locals marched to the city's gates to remonstrate with troops.

Demonstration

But it was not just the scale of destruction that angered citizens. They were also unhappy about rules imposed before being allowed to enter their city and the almost total media black-out on their situation, journalists said.

Fallujans bury corpses that can
be days or weeks old

Most complained of US soldiers pointing their weapons at them even in the simplest of situations, while others asked why they had been prevented from putting front doors back on to their homes. 

"And everyone was demanding that US forces withdraw immediately, allow media teams into the city to document the destruction, compensate citizens for the loss of their homes, and help in reconstruction of the city," the programme reported.

Others expressed health concerns, he added, particularly over decaying corpses and polluted water.

Rude awakening

One returnee, Yasir Abbas Atiya, told an Australian reporter he had always thought that he would rather sleep on the streets of his beloved hometown rather than in his current squalid Baghdad shelter.

Thirty minutes after he returned home this week, however, Atiya had to change his mind. He left in disgust and has no plans to go back.

ID papers must be carried at
all times

"I couldn't stand it," the grocer said. "I was born in that town. I know every inch of it. But when I got there, I did not recognise it."

Lakes of sewage foul the streets. The smell of corpses inside charred buildings pervades the atmosphere.

No water or electricity are available and there are constant warnings to watch out for landmines and booby traps.

"I thought 'this is not my town,'" Atiya said on Tuesday after going back to the abandoned Baghdad clinic his family shares with nearly 100 other displaced Fallujans. "How can I take my family to live there?"

Entry rules

One of the causes of major complaint were stringent and intrusive security measures.

US forces stationed around the city have to issue ID cards to those they allow back in, a document that has to be carried at all times.

Walking home. No cars are
permitted in the city

Citizens must leave their cars outside Falluja; no vehicles are allowed in except approved buses that herd people back and forth.

At the beginning of December, one prime-time US news channel had a military official telling Americans that Fallujans would "be finger printed, given a retina scan and then an ID card, which will only allow them to travel around their homes or to nearby aid centres".

"The marines will be authorised to use deadly force against those breaking the rules."

Historical precedent?

But the destruction of Falluja and the treatment of its residents comes as little surprise to Professor Rashid Khalidi at Columbia University in the US.

Locals complain that security
measures have gone too far

He points out that the British also chose to "make an example" out of Falluja when, in 1920, they launched a massive air campaign and flattened the city.

The British army lost more than 1000 soldiers in Iraq at the time and resorted to indiscriminate killing to regain a semblance of control - a history, he says, that is surprisingly familiar.

"The Bush administration is not creating the world anew in the Middle East. It is waging a war in a place where history really matters," he said.

Imperial behaviour

He points out that US troops, deployed in the Middle East for more than 62 years, have to recognise that their nation - that was once celebrated as a non-colonial power - has joined the imperial club, as Iraq's invasion and Falluja's destruction demonstrates.

"Things have changed fundamentally for the worse with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, particularly with the revelation that the core pretexts offered by the administration for the invasion were false.

"And particularly with growing Iraqi dissatisfaction with the occupation and with the images of the hellish chaos broadcast regularly everywhere in the world except in the United States - thanks to the excellent job done by the media in keeping the real human costs of Iraq off our television screens."

The Columbia professor concludes that the White House has proclaimed good intentions while refusing to acknowledge that Iraqis can only judge by what they see in places such as Falluja.

"It does not matter what you say you are doing in Falluja, what matters is what you are doing in Falluja - and what people see that you are doing."