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Fallujans welcome security, await electricity

The former insurgent stronghold had one of the best voter turnouts in the Sunni triangle.

By / February 8, 2005



FALLUJAH, IRAQ

Amid the ruins of Fallujah, white flags are emerging - alerting US and Iraqi forces to the presence of Iraqi families moving back home, clearing the rubble, and trying to renew hope.

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Residents say that the insurgents who made the city a virtual no-go zone are gone. They were violently cut out of this former stronghold by US forces during a monthlong battle in November - the toughest urban combat for US forces since Vietnam - that pulverized this city of some 300,000.

But now, the US Marines and the Iraqi government face a new challenge: convincing Fallujans that the insurgency here is overand that their ravaged homes can and will be rebuilt.

"This is probably the safest city in the country," says US Marine Lt. Col. Keil Gentry, executive officer of Regiment Combat Team 1 (RCT1), that controls Fallujah. "Is it blooming everywhere? No. But it's like the beginning of spring, with signs of green emerging here and there."

An unexpected measure of success came on election day last week. Nearly 8,000 people here defied insurgent threats and voted, according to US military officials. That figure accounts for 44 percent of all votes cast in Anbar Province, which includes the Sunni triangle, where antielection feeling was so strong that less than 7 percent voted at all.

New sense of security

Iraqis say the result shows how secure Fallujahns are beginning to feel, and note with added surprise that more than a few said their ballot was for Iyad Allawi, the US-backed interim prime minister who ordered the Fallujah invasion.

"It's better that the Americans are here," says Abdulrahab Abdulrahman, a teacher who carries a folder containing a compensation claim for the damage to his house. "I have the freedom to be a student, or whatever I want to be."

The mujahideen "are gone," he says, clearly pleased, standing on a street strewn with rubble. "They are finished."

Children wave at the marines, and accept candy that the men keep in cargo pockets, alongside stun grenades and extra rifle magazines. Many adults wave, too, though some look sullenly past.

But even as many Fallujans shift from anger to accommodation, there are complaints. There is little electricity and less running water. When Mr. Abdulrahman sees a marine pointing his rifle at pedestrians far down the street to get a better look through his rifle scope, the Iraqi scolds: "Don't do that. You could shoot a child."

Among the sullen is Abdulwahid, a teacher who acknowledges that Fallujah is safer - perhaps even one of the safest places in Iraq - though he detests the US presence. "We don't fear anything now, but I'll feel safer when the Americans end their occupation," he says in English. He returned three weeks ago to a house with little damage, but won't bring eight remaining family members until it is easier to enter, and the curfews ease.

Was the invasion the right choice? "I ask you the opposite question," says Abdulwahid, who would not give his last name. "If you are in America, and some foreign army comes in your country, are you happy? Can any citizen in the world support an attack on their city?"

Inside the sealed city

The city remains sealed to all but residents. Draconian rules that include biometric identity cards for some, a curfew, no weapons, and a zero-tolerance policy for anyone who incites violence are paying off, say US officers, and reassures those who have decided to return.

Marines are receiving more local tips about suspects and ordnance; one led to the discovery last Friday of a hidden cache of mortar rounds, rockets, and 2,000 blasting caps - essential to making roadside bombs.

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