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.
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.
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?"
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.
US military officials are quick to acknowledge that not everyone welcomes their presence. "There is a lot of stoicism - I've had some hard stares," says Colonel Gentry, from Carlsbad, Calif. But the Marines are trying to soften the blow by creating jobs, and stepping in when local officials are overwhelmed.
In one example, bureaucratic hurdles stymied Iraqi officials from immediately fulfilling a promise to pay every household $200 to tide them over until actual compensation packages - up to $10,000 to rebuild a house - could be worked out.
Recognizing the need to infuse cash into an economy, the Marines took over in mid-January, handing out $6.4 million to 32,219 heads of households over six days. In north of the city, the Marines also employ up to 120 people, who work for $6 per day, to sweep streets and clear rubble.
Iraqi ministries are slowly working to reconnect electricity lines and water. Iraqi officials hand out staple foods - though US forces still control distribution of water from 21 large tanks - because of the importance of a steady supply.
"We thought when people came in, they would be [ready to] riot, because of the destruction," says Capt. Paul Batty, of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines. "This whole evolution [from invasion to rebuilding] has gone better than we ever imagined." One reason, he says, is since civilians were first allowed to return on Dec. 23, marines have shown their only military target to be insurgents trying to get back into the city.
Marines estimate that they have found 98 percent of the weapons caches in Fallujah. After the invasion, insurgents created new ratlines; radio traffic showed attempts to get people in, and weapons caches began to appear in places marines had already cleared.
"Insurgents were sending the message: 'You haven't taken Fallujah; we can still get in,' " says Captain Batty, from Park City, Utah. "But the cost for them to do it was too high. We would identify the ratlines, put out snipers, and we would hunt them."
Officers acknowledge that the learning curve for bringing a wrecked city empty of both civilians and insurgents to any kind of normalcy has been steep. Election day turnout was a first step. "We were shocked," says Batty. "We nearly ran out of ballot papers. We were not prepared for that many people."
"My children can sleep easier," says Malik Abbas Ali, a father of eight, whose wife stands half hidden at the metal door of their house, a section of white sheet hanging as a flag. "But there is no danger anymore. It is all finished. I am concerned that we still have soldiers around."
Seeing a marine interpreter, another Iraqi comes into the conversation. "Americans are sleeping [in a base] near our house - it's a problem," he says. "When will they leave?"
"You've just elected a new government," replies Capt. Tom Noel, commander of the 3/5 Weapons Company from Lenexa, Kan. "When they ask for US troops to leave, we will leave."
"We're keeping the insurgents out," Captain Noel says later. "[Residents] don't have to worry that someone will break into the house in the middle of the night and shoot them in the back of the head, or drag them off to one of their [insurgent] murder houses."
For some in Fallujah, the rigor of the new security measures, and even the destruction of much of the city, are more bearable than the suffocation they felt when insurgents controlled the city. "My water, OK. No electricity. Sleep is good, American army is good," explains Ali Kadhem, whose three children step out of the front gate behind him, to wave to passing marines. He speaks with a smile, then holds up his hands. "Money for building? No."