Fallujah: After the Counter-Insurgency

Ten months after U.S. Marines effectively leveled Fallujah in a major counter-insurgency offensive, NPR's Anne Garrels visits the city and has this report.

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Now to Fallujah, the city where four American contractors were murdered and strung up on a bridge last year. It became Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's headquarters, and fighting there has claimed almost 10 percent of all military casualties in Iraq. Thousands of Iraqis have also been killed or wounded there. Following the US-led assault last November, Fallujah was all but leveled. Now, 10 months later, Marines and leading citizens are working together. NPR's Anne Garrels has this report.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

At a Fallujah factory, one of the few still standing, workers produce bricks as fast as they can, given power and fuel shortages. But the manager has had trouble getting his labor force through the Marine checkpoints at the edge of the city. Marine Colonel Joe Latwell(ph) stops by to see what the problem is.

Colonel JOE LATWELL (US Marines): You tell Salah Neda(ph) I'll be back, and we'll talk about badges again.

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you. Thank you very much.

GARRELS: One problem solved, but other frustrations pour out.

Mr. HAZEM MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Hazem Mohammed says compensation money for destroyed houses isn't enough, and he complains that what there is is not being distributed fairly.

The southern half of Fallujah, where fighting last November was heaviest, is still a wasteland. The Iraqi government, which manages the housing fund, has paid only a fraction of what it will take to rebuild. The US is responsible for restoring basic services. An $18 million sewer system had to be abandoned because of poor planning. But despite delays and threats to contractors who cooperate with the Marines, water and electricity mains are almost complete.

(Soundbite of hammering)

GARRELS: Thirty-seven-year-old Saba Freah(ph) lost everything during the battle for Fallujah and is starting from scratch. So far he's managed to build a brick shell for one room.

Mr. SABA FREAH: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He has nothing but scorn for the US and says he won't cooperate with the Marines out of principle. He also admits he's afraid that if he does work for the Americans, he'll be killed by insurgents. He says he doesn't know who to blame.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: There's been no compensation yet for businesses that were destroyed. Unemployment remains a big problem and, with it, a pool of young men from whom the militants can draw support. But shops are emerging from the rubble. Jossa Mohaven Tafiq(ph), who sells baked goods, is an optimist.

Mr. JOSSA MOHAVEN TAFIQ: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He believes the overall situation here is improving.

Mr. FARAZ SAMI KHALID(ph) (Journalist): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: A local journalist, Faraz Sami Khalid, goes even further. He says the US assault on Fallujah, however devastating, was worth it to rid the city of militants.

Make no mistake. There's no love-fest between Marines and the Fallujans. Too many people have died here. But Kael Weston, the State Department representative in Fallujah, says people are tired of the violence.

Mr. KAEL WESTON (State Department Representative in Fallujah): I think it almost took the situation to get as bad as it did for a very pragmatic mode to develop between us and the Sunni Arab population. The city still is a wounded city, and the people still are wounded.

(Soundbite of siren)

GARRELS: Heavily armed convoys of civil affairs teams travel Fallujah each day meeting with people. Women draped in black, their faces and hands etched with tribal tattoos, want help finding missing relatives. They ask how they'll get through the winter with no kerosene. Gas station owners complain they can't get through security checkpoints to transport fuel into the city. At the courthouse, lawyers ask that detainees held by the Americans be handed over to Iraqi courts. Thirty-three-year-old Captain Scott Walton was here for the fighting. He volunteered to come back and help rebuild this city.

Captain SCOTT WALTON: I think a lot of people are still on the fence, but you're starting to see people who are really--they want to see Fallujah succeed. You're finding people who feel like, frankly, the best way to get us to leave is to work with us and to get through a troublesome period. And many of the people don't feel like the insurgents are speaking for them.

GARRELS: A year ago Fallujah was a no-go zone for the Marines. Now they meet on a weekly basis with a city council made up of leading sheiks and imams. Sheikh Abdul Wahed al-Janabi(ph) says the situation remains tenuous.

Sheikh ABDUL WAHED AL-JANABI: (Through Translator) There are those who are dedicated to participating in the politics, definitely, amongst the tribal members in the surrounding area. There are also those who continue to try to threaten the tribal members and threaten those who participate in politics.

GARRELS: A prominent Fallujah lawyer asks his name not be broadcast because he meets with the Marines. Such is continued fear here.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He says he opposed the US occupation of his country; he blames the US for creating the conditions in Fallujah, where Zarqawi could flourish. But now, he says, the Marines have got to stay until Fallujah can stand on its own.

The upcoming referendum on the constitution is a big issue here. An engineer, who also asked his name not be broadcast, brings a copy of the constitution to discuss his concerns with the civil affairs team.

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He believes the provisions for regional autonomy will divide the country. He accuses the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad of opening the door for Iranian influence. He says, `It's up to the United States to make sure Iraq does not break apart.' Religious leaders have called on Fallujans to vote this time. Kael Weston says this is a recognition Sunni Arabs made a bad mistake by not participating in national elections last January.

Mr. WESTON: Night-and-day difference. We expect--and I think we're going to get--the highest turnout in the whole province in Fallujah, this city of mosques, which is a pretty remarkable turnaround from where we were in January because at that point everyone was boycotting, and everyone was saying, `The political process--we don't have anything to do with it.'

GARRELS: Most here say they will vote no, hoping that Sunnis will muster the two-thirds in three provinces necessary to defeat the constitution. There's a risk there will be a backlash if they fail. Fallujah is far from secure. Kael Weston, who's now put in 15 months here, hopes the American public understands how long it will take.

Mr. WESTON: American credibility is on the line. Iraqi lives are at risk. And regardless of your view before the war, it's something that I personally believe that I think America needs to make sure that we leave this country not in worse shape than when we found it. And I don't think we're there yet.

GARRELS: In a strange turnaround, many of the Sunnis here, who once rejected the Americans, now see them as their protectors, and they want them to be their advocates with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. They may not like the Americans, but they hate and fear the Shiites more. Anne Garrels, NPR News.

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