Can Fallujah be rebuilt?

In this Iraqi town, US faces challenges in creating jobs and attracting investment.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Dump trucks ply the roads, hauling away debris from wrecked homes. Backhoes churn the earth, laying new service lines. And mountains of bricks and buckets of paint are slowly turning war-ravaged Fallujah into a functional city again.

For US forces in Iraq, few challenges are as daunting - or perhaps as important - as the attempt to transform this bitter Sunni city into a model for counter-insurgency success.

But while Fallujah has become the modern example of the Vietnam-era dictum of having to "destroy a village to save it" - virtually all of its 50,000 structures were damaged in last November's offensive - today it is Iraq's largest construction site.

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And it's not just repairing the physical damage. US Marines are taking a far more radical approach by trying to rebuild the economy, attract investment, and create jobs.

"The one lesson we've learned is that we can't do it," says Maj. Scott McFadden, at the Civil-Military Operations Center (CMOC) in downtown Fallujah, which doubles as a fortified town hall.

"We as Americans could easily rebuild the industrial sector from the ground up, but you would have no Iraqi buy-in, and [it] would remain vacant," says Major McFadden, from Monee, Ill. "The buzzword is 'cascade effect,' and it's starting to come together.... Fallujans are doing it on their own."

But not all are impressed, with either the Marine efforts or lack of support from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which has been tardy with promised compensation.

"It is [going] so, so slowly, it's a big problem here because no one takes rebuilding seriously," says Obaied Ameen Ahmad, head of the Fallujah office of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.

"If you rebuild the town, people will feel safe. But now the trash is more than the flowers - we need to look where the flowers are, to smell their perfume," says Mr. Ahmad. "The people here are suffering so much, from both [insurgents and Americans].... Many are still outside the city, without money to rebuild [or] to pay school fees."

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi - who publicly signed off on the US attack of Fallujah - estimated $250 million in damages, and his government paid 40 percent of that. As part of that handout, marines last week delivered 10 billion Iraqi dinar from the Iraqi Central Bank.

But the interim government has paid nothing more to the 60 percent of 300,000 Fallujans who have returned; and none of the first tranche of cash covers wrecked businesses.

Projects to create 'ripple effect'

To fill in the gap, Capt. Scott Walton, the Fallujah team leader from the 6th Civil Affairs Group, has a $100,000 purse, and an ever-changing list of projects: competitive bids to build a new bank, rebuilding the local veterinary and agriculture departments and mayor's office, and organizing a fuel distribution system.

Fallujah "is one example of how we are going to stumble ourselves to success," says Captain Walton, from Dallas. "I want to be the guy who comes in at the three-yard line, and you need me to carry the ball across - after the Iraqis have carried it 97 yards."

Walton says he is looking for projects that create a "ripple effect," and as an example uses a mothballed propane factory that once had 12 workers. Marines are now fixing a generator and looted power distribution system, and he expects high demand to double the workforce. Drivers will also be needed and hired, and a supply chain will be created that Walton hopes will enable some other businesses to get running.

Fallujans angry edge has eased over time. One catalyst has been the changing political environment. Sunnis largely boycotted elections last January, and now realize it was a mistake to forfeit their voice in government.

During the mid-October constitutional referendum, Fallujans turned out to vote "no" in large numbers. They plan to come out again on Dec. 15, to maximize their voice in the new government. But they don't buy the US reasons for invading Fallujah.

"We as Sunnis have a different view. We have to resist occupiers wherever they are," says Sheikh Ahmed Sarhan Abd, deputy head of the Fallujah Sheikhs Council. "Fallujah is destroyed, and we had to protect our city from occupation. This is a reality."

Sympathy for Iraq's nationalist resistance - as opposed to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which often uses foreigners led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - means the Americans and Fallujans often agree to disagree.

"They would rather just forget what happened in November [2004]," says Lt. Col. Patrick Carroll, who speaks fluent Arabic after years of training and living in the Middle East. He is the key liaison between Fallujans and US forces.

Shifting Sunni outlook

So how are Fallujans coping with the destruction of their city?

"The Arab mentality of inshallah [if God wills it] allows them to accept more calamity," says Lt. Col. Carroll, from Shrewsbury, Mass. "They can deal with things that you or I would say: 'For the rest of our lives, we're going to hunt that guy to the ends of the earth.' [For them] what is done is done."

Indeed, Sunnis are beginning to see today that Shiite and Kurd power blocs care little for their plight.

"In Fallujah, Sunnis have changed their ideas, because they realize we are their biggest benefactors in Iraq," says Walton. "We want them to be successful, and I think they recognize that."

That means a degree of cooperation, as marines help to reestablish the small businesses that once supported 20,000 households, more than one-third of the population before the war.

"After hurricane Katrina, people went crazy when things weren't fixed after 96 hours - here you have to adjust expectations," says Lt. Col. Roy Trentalange, a reservist who is a businessman from Glenarm, Md., who is helping Iraqis build working business models. Subsidies from the former regime complicate that effort, too.

"So now you take a factory that was losing millions a year and keep it alive, so it can lose millions more?" asks Lt. Col. Trentalange. "That's a conundrum."

One year on in Fallujah, it is defined by a quotation from the British author and Arabist T.E. Lawrence that is tacked to the wall at the US military entrance to the CMOC.

"Do not try to do too much with your hands," warns the man better known as "Lawrence of Arabia." "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them."

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