Fallujah, Iraq (UPI) Aug 19, 2005
Fallujah is book-ended by two symbols, each of which mark a dark period in the city's recent history.
To the west is the criss-crossed iron of what Marines call the Blackwater Bridge. It is here where a group of Fallujans hung the charred bodies of murdered U.S. private security guards in March 2004, an act that taunted the United States government into ordering an attack on the city to find and punish the perpetrators.
International outcry about the fate of civilians inside the city and threats from the Iraqi Governing Council caused the U.S. government to call a retreat. Fallujah became the source of many of Anbar province's problems. As a no-go zone for U.S. troops, for seven months it was home base for insurgents and terrorists.
The other symbol, to the east, is a mural. It depicts a prominent Iraqi soldier who worked with the Marines as a battalion commander in the Iraqi National Guard. A year ago, he was kidnapped and killed. Like the Blackwater guards, Lt. Col. Sulaiman's death was captured on videotape. It was so gruesome U.S. military officials will not describe it.
Sulaiman's assassination was one of the last straws for U.S. forces sitting on the outskirts of Fallujah - barred from entry by a deal they were forced to broker in May with the people they were fighting. When he was killed, the clock began ticking down on the battle for the city. It came in November, as soon as the U.S. presidential election was over.
The mistakes of April would not be repeated. The city was cleared of all civilians, and the forces that gathered to clear it of insurgents were assured this time they would not be ordered to retreat.
Some 10 percent of all American troops killed in Iraq have been killed in and around Fallujah. While block for block nearby Ramadi is the most dangerous place for U.S. troops, Fallujah holds a grip on the international imagination. For Americans, it is a frighteningly savage place with little regard for human life. For Arabs around the world, it is a source of pride - the town that forced the U.S. military to retreat.
U.S. government and military officials are hoping that Fallujah will offer up one more symbol: an example for the rest of Iraq that shows no matter how bad things get, there is still hope for peace and prosperity.
"Fallujah is a test for all sides," a U.S. government official told UPI.
The insurgents have to hang on in Fallujah, because to accept defeat here means they will be without a rallying cry. The United States government has to stabilize this city if they are ever to claim victory in Iraq. The central government in Baghdad needs to show both its control over, and its compassion for, Fallujah if it is to have legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunnis.
And the Fallujans themselves want peace here, so they can rebuild their economy and homes and not be viewed by the rest of the world as terrorists-in-waiting.
Deliverance may be on its way. Driving through Fallujah's back alleys and main streets, the change from a year ago is stunning. For one, no Americans drove through Fallujah's streets back then. Now there are businesses open, Iraqi police directing cars, and street sweepers clearing debris -- a clever U.S. military program that puts money in people's pockets and also takes away hiding places for roadside bombs.
The industrial zone, however, is still flattened, ruined by Operation Al Fajr. The area provided 70 percent of the jobs in the city prior to the battle, and has yet to be given money by Baghdad to rebuild.
"Compensation is still the number one issue," said the U.S. official.
Around 130,000 people have returned to the city, half of its original population. About 24,000 claims have begun to be paid. At least 2,000 claims are outstanding.
The Baghdad government under then Prime Minister Iyad Allawi began making 20 percent payments to all claimants. The new government under Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jafaari has not paid anything. U.S. officials estimate the entire claims process will yield $200 million for Fallujah residents and businesses.
"They think we can snap our fingers and get the prime minister to pay the bill. We can't," said the U.S. official.
Because of the strange politics that come with an internationally unpopular war and occupation, the U.S. government now deals with the Baghdad government very gingerly. It doesn't want to be seen as making a puppet out of Jafaari, which would only undermine an already shaky government.
What U.S. diplomatic and military officials are seeing in Fallujah is a burgeoning civic sense. Two voter registration sites handled more than 1,400 registrants in a single day.
"If they can get their own representatives in Baghdad, the people of Fallujah can advocate for themselves," the official said. "People will show up and vote. They realize they need the rest of the country more than the rest of the country needs them."
Only 2 percent of the people of Anbar province voted in the last election, but 40 percent of those voters were in Fallujah.
Lt. Col. Joe "Hondo" Haldeman, a Marine civil affairs reserve officer from Rhode Island whose main job now is shepherding the city council and the mayor into civic leadership, estimates at least half the 25,000 eligible voters will show up at the polls in October to vote on the constitution.
At both registration sites this week Iraqi election officials they shooed away U.S. officials and Iraqi security forces, not wanting to draw attention from insurgents, who are still a factor here. By the same token, their banners were hung prominently. They are not hiding, hoping to escape notice.
"They are mobilized to vote. Whether it's to vote against the constitution I don't know. Voting "no" from anyone is declaring war," the U.S. official said.
There case was helped along on July 15 when the Council of Islamic Scholars, a powerful group of imams in a town known as the City of Mosques, issued a fatwa encouraging all Fallujans to vote in October. The imams coupled the order with a demand that all detainees be released as well (there is nothing given for free here).
Ari Abdul Azzad, a doctor at the bare but clean Dar al Cement primary health care clinic, said he will vote even if it means his life.
"It is my opinion only, but we must support the government election. We are only interested in safety, and to get the Americans to go home," he said in an interview in his office.
"That's what I want too," chimed Maj. Chuck Risio, a civil affairs reserve officer from Pennsylvania who came to check on the clinic's generator.
The two men smiled at each other.
"This is our fate. If we don't participate, we will elect strangers to control us, whether Americans or Shiites. I will vote even if I get killed," Azzad continued.
Azzad speaks English, learned during his primary school studies in Fallujah and in university and medical school in Baghdad. It has been polished in the last two years.
"By talking to Americans I learned it well. This is the only benefit of the invasion," he laughed.
Azzad says his clinic is faring better under the American occupation.
"Now there is money," he smiles.
He was working in a Baghdad hospital during the invasion in 2003; for years they had few medicines and supplies. When Saddam Hussein's government fell he and fellow doctors broke into locked storage rooms in search of what they needed to treat the sick and wounded.
"Many, many rare drugs were in Baghdad," he said.
They were being held back for sale on the black market.
The clinic - one of four in few block radius, and all of them full of walk-in patients - is supplied now and has steady electric power thank to generators paid for by the U.S. military.
"But the situation over all is not better. Now it's the safety of the Iraqi people. There is no improvement in it," he said.
Azzad acknowledges Fallujans themselves hold the keys to their own safety. They know who the criminals are, who the insurgents are, where the bombs are being made. Many of them are afraid to turn them in.
But others, like Azzad, would only point them out to Iraqi security forces, which are just now to show up around the city. This is cautious period, as Fallujans size them up and weigh how much protection they really offer.
"If we want to cooperate, we must cooperate with our own government, our own police," he said. "I can not cooperate with the American army."
"It would be the same for you if Iraq invaded the U.S.," Azzad said to Risio, who shrugged and nodded his agreement.
For all its progress, Fallujah is likely to remain troubled. There remain almost daily reports of improvised explosive devices. Intelligence has turned up rumors of 40 car bombs packed and ready to go.
The relative peace of the last five months - shattered in June by a car bomb that killed four Marines and wounded a dozen others - is taking a downward turn. The violence is expected to increase as the October referendum nears.
"It will never be a shining city in the desert," the U.S. official said. "But it could be a place where the Americans followed up, where the locals acquiesced and where the Shi'ite government was tested and performed.
"If they get a large turn-out, the images will change the world."
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