Vital Signs of a Ruined Falluja Grow Stronger


New York Times

March 26, 2005

FALLUJA, Iraq, March 26 - Four months after American bombs and guns pounded much of this city into ruins, some signs of life are returning. A kebab shop and a bakery have reopened on the bullet-scarred main boulevard. About a third of the city's 250,000 residents have trickled back since early January. American marines and Iraqi police officers patrol the streets, and there has been little violence.

But the safety has come at a high price. To enter Falluja, residents must wait about four hours to get through the rigid military checkpoints, and there are strict nightly curfews. That has stunted the renascent economy and the reconstruction effort. It has also frustrated the residents, who are still coming to grips with their shattered streets and houses. Many have jobs or relatives outside the city.

"Falluja is safe," said Hadima Khalifa Abed, 42, who returned to her ruined home in January with her husband and 10 children. "But it is safe like a prison."

American military officials here say they face a difficult choice. Easing the harsh security measures might help revive the economy and cut the 50 percent unemployment rate; it could also allow the return of the insurgents who ran Falluja from last April until the American intervention in November. Even now, insurgents lob occasional mortar shells into the city, and a number of contractors have been killed here.

There are other obstacles. Falluja still lacks a mayor and a city council because of the new Iraqi National Assembly's failure to form a government. The American military is reluctant to make decisions that will shape the city for decades, and the resulting power vacuum has been crippling.

Hundreds of new police officers, trained in Jordan, are expected to arrive in the city soon, American military officials say. Nongovernmental organizations have donated truckloads of equipment for fire stations, hospitals and schools. But there are no police stations for the officers to work in, and there are no new fire stations because no one has the authority to decide where to build them.

"Without a mayor, no one settles the disputes," said an American military official who is involved in the reconstruction effort and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Without a city council how do you get a design approved, and how do you coordinate a plan for a functioning city?"

All the same, much has improved since residents first returned to a nearly deserted city almost three months ago.

On a tour of the city's central neighborhoods with an American convoy, civilian cars and taxis could be seen cruising the streets. Customers shopped at fruit and vegetable markets, and a crowd waited outside a new branch of the Rafidain Bank.

At the Palestine School, where classes started again two months ago, the cheerful shrieks of students could be heard in the hallways.

"Things are almost back to normal here," said the headmaster, Samer Eyd Jawhar, 60, a portly man in a light blue jacket and tie. "We have teachers and books. Things are getting better."

Everywhere, there are complaints about the strict military control of the city. Najim Abed, the director of an emergency clinic, said its one ambulance often has trouble getting in and out of the city. It is also hard to reach patients at night, because the ambulance must be accompanied by a military patrol, he said.

There are still two battalions of marines operating in the city, with some added units like a Navy Seabee engineering team. There are at least two battalions of Iraqi police officers, though military officials declined to give any exact figures.

Meanwhile the rebuilding efforts are proceeding, however slowly. After the American incursion in November, Falluja's utilities lay in ruins. Today, electricity and running water are available in 40 percent of the city's homes and shops, American officials say, and will reach the rest within the next month. The sewer drainage system is working again, and longer-term plans are under way to completely replace the city's rickety electrical grid.

Insurgents have killed a few of the contractors who have done rebuilding work, contractors and American officials say. Others have received death threats. Many contractors refuse to work in the city at all. No Shiite Arab contractors have done work here, because the largely Sunni Arab insurgency has made them targets, said one Western contractor who asked that he and his firm not be named for safety reasons.

The effect of the threats is apparent even in the American military headquarters here, where the bathroom is still unfinished. The contractor working on that bathroom received a threat to stop working or die, said the American military official. The work stopped. But the owner of the company, who did extensive work with the American military and lived in Baghdad, was killed last week anyway.

"We have tried to hire a new contractor to finish the job, but have not found one yet willing to work here," the American official said.

But American and Iraqi officials agree that the city's residents have worked hard to prevent the intimidation. A group of Falluja residents, including some tribal figures, have formed an anti-intimidation council, said the Western contractor.

An effort to compensate residents for damage to their homes has begun in the past two weeks.

On Sunday, Ms. Abed was among the second group to receive a compensation check in the former youth center where the American military has its Falluja headquarters. The checks were given out by members of the Falluja Working Group, a mix of former government employees and others who form an ad hoc city council.

Each person received an initial payment equal to 20 percent of the cost of the damage as assessed by a group of Iraqi engineers. The money comes from the interim Iraqi government.

Ms. Abed, dressed in a full-length black abaya, explained that she returned to her home in the city's Andalus district in January to find the kitchen and pantry almost totally destroyed, with open sky visible through the ceiling. The rest of the house was a relief: there were some holes in the walls, nothing more. The refrigerator, television and anything else of value were gone.

When her name was called, Ms. Abed went to the front of the room and received a check for 2,400,000 dinars, about $1,655. Like many of the 30 people who received checks that day, she said it was nowhere near enough. Her husband and four of her children are suffering from mental illness, she said, and the entire family talks constantly about their fears for the future.

Compared with her neighbors, though, she feels lucky.

"When I saw their houses were totally destroyed, I said, 'Thank God, we are O.K.; we are better off than the others,' " Ms. Abed said.

Falluja's future is full of questions. The Iraqi government has determined that compensating the city's residents for their damaged homes will cost $496 million, of which $100 million has been allocated, American officials say.

The city's identity, too, is uncertain. In an effort to push Falluja in a new direction, American and Iraqi officials have carefully screened applicants for police and government jobs to make sure they have no insurgent ties.

"We listen to the voice of the people, not the voice of the former regime," said Lt. Col. Harvey Williams, an Army civil affairs officer working on economic development issues in Falluja. "We're trying to set a whole new paradigm."

But Falluja has a history of sympathy with the insurgents, and it is still not clear how they will react as the reconstruction continues.

"When you are insulted, it is not enough to get money," said Sabih Shamkhi, 61, who was also waiting to receive a compensation check for his damaged house. "But money is better than nothing. We hope the government will fulfill the rest of its obligations to us."