FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqis burned American flags, brandished banners and thronged the streets of the western city of Falluja to celebrate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the former al Qaeda stronghold and site of some of the Iraq war’s fiercest battles.
Some 3,000 people flooded the mainly Sunni city carrying Iraqi flags, banners with “Falluja: The City of Resistance” printed on them, and photos of Falluja residents killed by U.S. forces after the 2003 U.S-led invasion.
Part of the crowd burned several U.S. flags in their celebrations over the American withdrawal.
“Celebrations mark a historical day for the city of Falluja and we should remember in pride the martyrs who sacrificed their blood for the sake of this city,” Dhabi al-Arsan, deputy governor of Anbar province, told the crowd.
Falluja, a main city in the western desert province of Anbar, served as a base for Iraqi fighters after the invasion, and witnessed two major conflicts in 2004. U.S. troops used overwhelming force, tanks, fighter jets and helicopter gunships to crush insurgents there.
Hundreds of Iraqis were killed in the fighting and thousands were forced to flee their homes.
“I’m glad to see the Americans are leaving Iraq. It’s only now we truly feel the taste of freedom and independence,” said Ahmed Jassim, 30, a taxi driver as he waved the Iraqi flag.
“We will not see American forces anymore. They remind us of strife and destruction.”
Nearly nine years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Washington plans to end its military presence and pull out the remaining 5,500 U.S. troops before December 31.
Only a small contingent of civilian trainers and fewer than 200 U.S. military personnel will remain in Iraq.
Many Iraqis await the U.S. withdrawal with relief and hopes for a better future, despite fears that sectarian tensions bubbling beneath the surface will return just as Iraq struggles to end years of war and violence.
Overall violence in Iraq has dropped sharply since the dark days of sectarian slaughter in 2006-07, but bombings and killings remain common.
“After the Americans leave we want to see a united Iraq, we do not want disputes,” Hameed Jadou, a Sunni cleric, told the crowds. “Whoever says this is an Iraqi Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurdish, or Turkman, is using the terms brought by the occupier.”
Reporting by Fadhil al-Badrani in Falluja; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed, editing by Paul Casciato