One year later: Fallujah mending, but still volatile
Mixed emotions are written on Iraqi faces, as Sgt. Mindo Estrella leads a dusty foot patrol of US Marines in Fallujah. Smiles and furtive waves - even handshakes and shouts of "Good! Good!" - blend with angry, sullen stares.Skip to next paragraph
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One year after marines launched the most ferocious urban assault since the Vietnam War - emptying the city in order to root out entrenched insurgents - the Battle for Fallujah has yet to be won.
Last February, US commanders declared Fallujah the "safest" city in Iraq. Yet, despite a constant US and Iraqi military presence and the strictest security measures of any Iraqi city, insurgents have begun filtering back, and the prevailing calm veneer of a city on the mend can disappear in a flash. US forces here are often confronted with street-level decisions about how best to build the trust of residents while maintaining security - and their own safety. Though attacks are limited, roadside bombs are increasingly common; marines say teenagers are being paid to throw grenades.
Sergeant Estrella turns a final corner, just 50 meters from the base of Fox Company, and describes recent grenade attacks - one bounced off a marine's armored vest a couple of nights back, before going off.
"We have not been hit yet; maybe we are a hard target," Estrella, from Eire, Pa., says of his squad. "Or maybe it is not our time yet."
That was Saturday morning. A few hours later, at the same place, in darkness at the end of another patrol, Estrella was hit.
His squad passed a small knot of young men on a street corner, and someone hurled a grenade.
Estrella was struck with a dozen pieces of shrapnel. He has since been flown to a US military hospital in Germany and is expected to fully recover.
The plan in Fallujah is for the Iraqi Army to eventually withdraw, and then US forces, leaving security to budding Iraqi police units. But to those marines of the 2nd Battalion 6th Marines, the loss of the sergeant is another reminder of how dangerous the city remains.
When more than 10,000 US troops and several thousand Iraqis launched "Operation Phantom Fury" on Nov. 8 last year, marine top brass promised a "decisive victory" against "mugs, thugs, murderers, and terrorists" that controlled Fallujah.
Today, the sound of rebuilding is everywhere: the scrape of shovels lifting sand, the tap of trowel on brick, as Fallujans haul away mountains of rubble and rebuild, often from scratch. But there is also a tension that did not exist earlier this year, when only a trickle of residents had come home - and attacks were negligible.
The insurgency is persistent enough that marines on Monday morning launched a large operation with several hundred US and Iraqi troops against Zaidon and other nearby targets south of Fallujah, using helicopters to insert units. Officers believe Zaidon has been a base for training insurgents to infiltrate into Fallujah.
"The citizens of Fallujah, not the security forces, will have to decide if they want to keep the insurgency here or not," says Maj. Andrew Warren, the 2/6 battalion operations officer.
"I think they have made a decision, but there is a difference between deciding and acting," says Major Warren, from Charlottesville, Va. "When an IED [improvised explosive device] is placed on any one of these roads, they know about it.... They may not like it, and may not support it, but it's a whole new ballgame to turn him in."
After Estrella was hit with the grenade, marine units raided 60 nearby houses. Often clearly frightened, families were hustled into a single room during each house search. No one said they had heard or seen a thing. Young men and those with US dollars received the most questions.
US officers say they are not surprised that insurgent activity has increased with the return of an estimated 175,000 people - some 60 percent of the pre-war population - and the constant flow of construction materials into Fallujah.
"We haven't lost the city to insurgents," says Warren. "We've given it back to the people, and with that is some risk."