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Fallujah; a city remains captive

JAMES RUPERT

November 27, 2005

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- At the edge of this city the other day, Fallujah residents waited in a line of 130 cars to pass through the fortifications, document checks and vehicle inspections that separate their city from the outside world.

Near the center of town, American and Iraqi troops cordoned streets and searched each house for the tools of rebellion: weapons, cash, computers, and the explosives, wires or batteries used to make bombs. Troops enforce a 10 p.m. curfew, but residents say they get off the streets soon after dark to avoid the dangers of nervous soldiers at checkpoints.

A year after 10,000 American troops blasted into Fallujah to dismantle a stronghold of anti-U.S. guerrillas, they and their Iraqi allies grip the city tightly enough that deaths from mortar attacks, bombings and other urban combat are way down. Fallujah seems quieter than many other cities of central Iraq.

But in a day's visit this month, there was little immediate evidence that America is achieving its broader counterinsurgency goal: winning popular support, or at least acceptance, by convincing Fallujah's people that they can rebuild their lives and their city. Residents say the lockdown of the city humiliates them and chokes the economy so badly that many people struggle simply to survive.

"We feel that Fallujah is a prison," said Mohammed, a restaurant manager who asked that his full name not be published, saying a high public profile is risky here. He showed the plastic identity card, issued by U.S. Marines, that Fallujans must show at checkpoints to enter the city. Marines take retina scans and all 10 fingerprints of every resident when issuing the cards. "Are we criminals?" Mohammed asked.

U.S. officials last year vowed to rebuild Fallujah as a model city that would illustrate the benefits of cooperation with the Americans. They conceded that U.S. forces would have a limited window after the battle to improve Fallujans' lives and thus win a measure of public goodwill.

Men at the Al-Furqan Mosque, near Fallujah's center, said some rebuilding is under way but has not really improved people's lives. For example, power lines have been largely restored but bring electricity only a few hours a day, they said.

"The huge majority of our people have no jobs," said the mosque's imam, Abdulhamid Jumaily. Fallujah used to make some money as a commercial stop at the intersection of the Euphrates River and the Baghdad-to-Jordan highway. But goods trucked into town must wait hours or days for inspection at one of the entry checkpoints, and this often raises prices, residents said.

It's unclear how many of Fallujah's estimated 300,000 people have returned. U.S. officers say it may be 75 percent to 80 percent, but large, empty neighborhoods seem to belie that figure.

Returning families who lost their houses are supposed to get as much as $10,000 in Iraqi dinars to rebuild. But without jobs and income, "many families are using the rebuilding money to feed themselves instead," Jumaily said.

Securing a stronghold

For the first 19 months of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Fallujah was the symbol of resistance.

A city whose Sunni Arab majority had long played an active part in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, Fallujah became a stronghold of both ex-Baathist and Islamic militant guerrillas. Their constant attacks on U.S. forces -- and the U.S. offensives last year in response -- gave Fallujah the highest per capita death toll of any place in Iraq except for Hussein's small hometown, Tikrit.

The weeklong battle last November, in which 10,000 Marines and Army troops fought their way into the city, flattened guerrilla strongholds -- the neighborhoods of Jolan, Shuhada, Nazal and others -- into piles of shattered masonry.

A year later, entering Fallujah is more difficult than crossing many international borders. Where residents waited in line at one entry, a billboard announced, "the terrorists use your neighborhoods to fire mortars and rockets" at U.S. and Iraqi security forces. "Protect your family," it urged, giving a hotline number for residents to report guerrilla activities.

In a downtown neighborhood, Al-Furqan, Army Capt. Dave Martino supervised Iraqi troops in what is a routine search of homes. Martino is based here as an adviser to one of the Iraqi army units that help control the city.

Suspicions abound

Martino knelt on one knee, rifle in a ready position, watching squads of Iraqis guard the street while others knocked on gates and disappeared into houses. "It's cordon-and-search, the normal thing," he said. The Iraqi troops "can find things better than we can."

The searches are detailed. "If they [Iraqi troops] find a computer or cell phone, they get into them," Martino said. "They know how to check them" for suspicious files or phone numbers.

As Martino watched, the Iraqis politely checked a taxi that had brought foreign visitors from Baghdad, directing its owner to open it up. "Taxis are suspect," Martino explained, because guerrillas often use them for attacks.

Men with significant amounts of cash are suspect, too. "Profiling is alive and well in Fallujah," Martino said.

Mohammed agreed. "If any soldier stops you and finds you have dollars, he will accuse you of being a terrorist," he said.

Many residents complain that U.S. and Iraqi forces readily confiscate dollars they may find in house searches or at checkpoints. Many Iraqis mistrust banks and keep family savings in cash or gold. No specific complaint by residents could be investigated in a visit that had to be kept short for security reasons.

"I have personally witnessed numerous claims and inquiries about cash and valuables being taken during raids," Lt. Col. Eloy Campos, a Marine civil affairs officer here, said in an e-mail.

"However, I also found out that many of those claims are baseless as not too many Iraqis have $120,000 and several ounces of gold stashed in their homes unless they are somehow connected to criminal activities. I would be very cautious about believing such accusations."

As in almost any locale in Iraq where tensions are high and U.S and Iraqi forces are under particular threat, residents say troops are inclined to fire quickly at any perceived threat -- a gunshot, explosion or speeding car. U.S. officers say their troops work under elaborate rules to avoid accidental shootings of civilians.

"I saw an old man driving his car on a road that troops had blocked off," said Mohammed, the restaurant worker. "When he saw his way blocked, he tried to turn his car around. He didn't do anything unusual, but" as he maneuvered, "the soldiers opened fire and killed him."

Mohammed and others said a particular problem is shootings or arrests by Iraqi troops of boys as young as 12. "I saw the bodies of three boys, neighbors of mine, who got shot by soldiers who saw them running in the street," he said.

Stifled by "two enemies"

In the past year, U.S. forces have used various Iraqi forces to help control Fallujah, including units of the new army, the Iraqi National Guard and police units called Public Order Battalions. Those battalions have a reputation here as being especially abusive, and U.S. forces had them withdrawn some weeks ago. Since then, "the city is quieter and sporadic gunfire is not as prevalent," said the Marines' Campos.

Many of the Iraqi forces in this Sunni city are Shias from southern Iraq. And as much as Fallujans dislike being occupied by Americans, they say they prefer them to the Shias, whom they accuse of arrogance and brutality.

"We are trapped between two enemies," Mohammed said. Arriving at his restaurant one morning this summer, "we found warnings pasted on the windows saying that anyone who sells to the soldiers will be beheaded," he said. Uncertain what to do, he ripped down the notices and gave them to some Public Order Battalion officers, begging to be excused from selling them lunch.

"They accused me that I wrote it, and they arrested me," Mohammed said. He was released when another officer, whom he had befriended with free food, came to his rescue.

While Fallujah may be securely occupied by U.S. forces, it is still at war, Mohammed said. "When I was a boy" during Iraq's decade-long war with Iran, "we had a normal life here," he said. "The war front was far away in Iran. Now the war front is with us. It is in every house."


:: Article nr. 18200 sent on 27-nov-2005 14:50 ECT

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