Closer Look at Falluja Finds Rebuilding Is Slow

By JOEL BRINKLEY

New York Times

April 14, 2005

FALLUJA, Iraq, April 14 - Robert B. Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state, wanted to see Falluja for himself instead of relying on dry reports from the "interagency process," as he put it.

So midway through a trip otherwise focusing on Sudan, he stopped here Wednesday morning and sped downtown in an Army Humvee, squinting at the city through thick bullet-proof glass, then got out at an American base to speak to the new city council. He got an earful.

On the flight here, which was kept secret for security reasons, a State Department official shared a relatively rosy view of Falluja five months after the American military operation that largely rid the city of insurgents but also leveled a good part of it.

Ninety-five percent of Falluja's residents now have water in their homes, the official said, reading from a report. Eighty-five percent of people in northern areas that were not the focus of the American offensive have electricity. Three out of five medical clinics are now open.

But sitting with five members of Falluja's temporary city council, Mr. Zoellick asked the chairman, Sheik Khalid al-Jamily, "Do most people in Falluja have safe drinking water?"

The short answer was no.

"Two sewage pipes dump raw sewage into the river," he said. The Euphrates is an important source of drinking water. "The whole sewer system is in very bad shape."

Mr. Zoellick asked whether electricity and schools were functioning. "We brought in some tents and desks for schools," Mr. Jamily replied.

He and two of his council colleagues peppered Mr. Zoellick with complaints and requests, in a good-natured tone.

Mr. Jamily noted that "it has been four months, and there have been no violent incidents," as if to say: we have kept our part of the bargain. So now, he went on, "we can start reconstruction on a big scale."

Maj. Gen. Sabah Mahid, Falluja's police chief, said, "I would like you to think of some project you can contribute to the city." The vice chairman of the council, Qasim al-Jassam, asked Mr. Zoellick to "get involved with this and solve it as soon as possible."

Mr. Jamily did think of one quality-of-life improvement. Because only about a third of the residents have returned since the fighting in November, "the traffic is O.K."

Mr. Zoellick listened impassively, a slight smile on his face. As he was getting ready to leave, he told the councilmen he had "learned a great deal" and added, "When it comes to reconstruction, obviously we can help." But "to bring a city back to life," he said, "it has to be done by the people of the city."

Asked later about the meeting, he said, "They were engaged in the political process of making life better in Falluja."

Mr. Zoellick arrived in Iraq the day after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited. But Mr. Zoellick is the most senior American civilian official to venture into downtown Falluja since the offensive.

"Frankly," he explained, a purpose of the visit "is to get a chance with the Iraqis and the Americans to answer some questions."

"I can do it through systems" at the State Department, "but it also helps to do a little bit on the ground."

He flew to Baghdad from Amman, Jordan, in an anonymous looking C-130 military transport with an Army-issue flak jacket and helmet at his side. From Baghdad, he traveled to the Army base on the outskirts of Falluja aboard a Black Hawk helicopter that flew fast, and so low that it almost clipped the trees.

Before climbing into the Humvee here, a military briefer noted that a small-scale insurgency was still going on, and that there had been activity by snipers. Whatever happens, do not get out of the car, Mr. Zoellick's party was warned.

Army officers say there has been a rash of visitors from Washington in recent weeks, as Falluja has begun the long slow climb back from a half-wrecked ghost town. Several legislators and others have taken a drive-through aboard Army Humvees, so many that military officers tell of worries that insurgents will attack a convoy.

For that reason, the convoy dashed through the city as rapidly as possible over the rutted roads, allowing Mr. Zoellick only quick glimpses of a scattering of people along the road, bombed-out rubble here and there, and scant visible reconstruction. Children waved at the convoy; adult men looked on sullenly.

Downtown Falluja, once crowded and thriving, did not exactly bustle. But dozens of people wandered among shops. Most were open. Two bakers were at work kneading dough in a bakery that had reopened with the help of a loan from the United States.

One problem the American military had faced here was that the city had no government, no one in authority the officers could talk to. So late last month the military encouraged some community leaders to stage a city council election. On April 3, Mr. Jamily and his colleagues were elected. They are considered temporary because once the new government takes full power in Baghdad, people here assume, it will have something to say about how local governments are formed.

In the meantime, Mr. Zoellick asked Mr. Jamily where the council got its money, because budget authority is power.

"We have no communications; we have no money, no vehicles, nothing," Mr. Jamily acknowledged. "But we were elected by all the people."