Some Residents Return to Falluja for a Look at Ravaged City

By ERIK ECKHOLM and ERIC SCHMITT

New York Times

December 23, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 23 - The first 500 displaced residents of war-ravaged Falluja were allowed in to inspect their homes today, even as American marines and warplanes fought an unexpectedly pitched battle with insurgents elsewhere in the city.

Today was the official start of the resettlement of Falluja, the former insurgent stronghold that was conquered block by bloody block last month, creating a virtual ghost town, with many homes damaged and no electricity or running water.

More than 200,000 residents of the Sunni Arab city some 40 miles west of Baghdad fled the fighting in November and have crammed into tent camps nearby or the homes of relatives elsewhere.

The interim Iraqi government has promised their speedy return to what was once regarded as a center of the insurgency and asserts that despite continued violence it can hold elections in Falluja at the end of January. American officers, citing the scale of physical damage as well as the continued surprise outbursts of combat, caution that it will take months at best to restore vital infrastructure and longer still to create from the ruins the showcase city they have promised.

Today marked a most gingerly of first steps toward repopulating the city, with the enormous obstacles in plain sight.

Only residents of a single neighborhood in the southern part of the city were allowed to enter today. The government estimated this week that 2,000 heads of households would take advantage of the offer, but the turnout was 500, according to the Marines, who closely supervised the visits.

Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the local Marine commander, said that the initial returnees were largely male heads of households checking in on the condition of their families' homes and business. He said he expected the number of residents returning to grow as word spread, particularly during Friday prayers sessions.

"When word gets out, the momentum will pick up," General Sattler said in a telephone interview.

The Iraqi government and the Marines had to prepare the ground by building water tanks, giving out water cans to returnees, and providing them with food stockpiles and kerosene to allow for primitive lighting.

In a telephone interview today, the minister of industry, Hajim al-Hassani, said that "we will complete the return of families within the next two weeks, unless there are some difficulties that might emerge."

But the city has been divided into 18 neighborhoods and residents will be allowed back in for escorted looks, like today, one neighborhood at a time, with the next visits planned for three days from now, General Sattler said.

At the end of this first day, it was unclear how many of the people, mostly men, who ventured in for a look had actually decided to move back with their families. It has been too dangerous for journalists to enter the city, which is patrolled by American and Iraqi forces, or to mingle in the refugee camps.

Whether or not they supported the insurgency, which drew together former Baathists, a strengthening local movement of radical Islamists and some foreign Islamists, many Falluja residents were embittered by the violent American siege. So another unknown factor is the spirit of the returning population and how it will react to the close monitoring planned by the Marines, including space-age "biometric" identification of each resident with iris measurements, fingerprints and personal badges for swiping at checkpoints.

Dhia Hussein, 28, who was entering at one of five checkpoints today to go view his parents' home, expressed some of the city's fear, sadness and anger.

In the fall, he bought a house for himself in a different neighborhood, still off-limits, because he was about to marry. "I had just furnished that house and when I left, the fridge was full of sweets and fruits for my wedding," he said as he waited to be searched by Iraqi soldiers. "We've heard that most of the houses have been burned or destroyed."

But his countenance shifted to fury as he then said he had also heard that mosques had been burned. "The mosque is God's house, did you ever hear of anyone destroying God's house?" he shouted.

American military officials and some journalists who witnessed the fighting reported that in some cases militants had used mosques for stockpiling arms and for firing positions, and that American troops had therefore felt justified in attacking them.

General Sattler said that residents who were allowed back into Falluja today were at least assessing the damage of their dwellings, not necessarily moving back for good. He said it could be months before power lines and running water were operating again.

The officer, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, said in a 35-minute telephone interview from his headquarters three miles east of Falluja that American forces working with the interim Iraqi government were prepared to provide up to 10,000 residents with kerosene, drinking water, food and blankets.

Even as the first trickle of residents returned to their homes, a fierce battle between American forces and 8 to 10 insurgents broke out in a northeast neighborhood of the city.

Late in the day, the American military command in Baghdad issued a statement saying that three marines had been killed "while conducting security and stabilization operations" in Al Anbar Province, which encompasses Falluja. But the military said it could provide no further details for security reasons, and it is not known if the casualties were associated with the new fighting in Falluja.

More than a month after major combat ended in Falluja, General Sattler said he had not expected the level of resistance that American and Iraqi forces continue to face in the city. In the past two weeks alone, he said that 100 to 125 insurgents had been killed.

"I would say I am surprised," said General Sattler, who on Nov. 18 said that the offensive in Falluja had "broken the back of the insurgency." "I'd love to be able to tell you we've cleaned out the city, but I can't."

He said it was unclear if insurgents were infiltrating from outside the city, have been hiding in the bombed-out buildings or are popping up from the labyrinthine network of tunnels below the city streets.

They appear to be a mix of foreign fighters (78 are now in detention) and Iraqis, he said. The military has buried 500 insurgent bodies since the major fighting began in early November, and has taken $20,000 in cash (new U.S. $100 bills mostly), from the corpses. Recovered weapons are given to the Iraqi security forces they in good condition, he said.

General Sattler said there were now about 2,000 marines and Navy Seabees inside Falluja, as well as about 2,000 Iraqi military and security. An additional 1,200 Marines and 2,000 Iraqi security forces are on the outskirts of the city and in nearby villages.

Over all, throughout the province, attacks against United States and Iraqi forces are down about 60 percent from pre-offensive levels, according to Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a military spokesman.

General Sattler said the Iraqi interim government had picked the sectors that would open first, and in the three to four weeks since then, the military has focused its engineering fleet, including bulldozers, large dump trucks and ordnance-disposal teams, on cleaning up those areas first. Large pools of standing water also had to be pumped back into the Euphrates River by American and Iraqi engineers.

Returning residents were allowed to drive their cars or trucks up to a checkpoint, inside of which the military has set up and rehearsed a park-and-ride shuttle bus system to ferry residents to and from their homes.

"They can check house see if it's damaged, then get bused back out," General Sattler said. "Then they can go back to get families and move back into the house." But residents first have to show their food-ration cards, and then are fingerprinted and have their irises scanned to receive an I.D. badge. Once badged, family members can swipe it through a machine-reader to enter.

Once inside, residents will have access to one of 24 large water-holding tanks the military has erected around the city. Each large container has a pipe coming down from it with four to eight spigots. A private contractor keeps the tanks filled. Some 40,000 water cans have been made available thus far.

Military engineers have been working to restore the power grid, but with so many lines knocked down during the fighting, General Sattler said, it will be "months before we can make it safe." In the meantime, residents will use kerosene-powered generators for power, which many did even before the offensive, he said.

Generators are already in place at the water-pumping and water-purification stations, and at the city's main hospital, he said.

General Sattler said the plan, also approved by the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, calls for a second, adjacent sector in the northern part of the city to be reopened three days from now. After that, the military and Iraqi government will reopen sectors as conditions permit.

"It could take 30 days or so, or it could be earlier than that," General Sattler said, before the entire city is reopened. "The goal is to have the people of Falluja vote within their town on Jan. 30."

He expressed confidence that elections would take place in Falluja, and elsewhere in Al Anbar Province, though not without further violence.