Fallujah's city council battles to hold its ground

Despite threats from insurgents, Iraqi leaders meet weekly to address the concerns of citizens.

His voice cracking with emotion and anger, the mayor of Fallujah lashes out at his city council: Insurgent violence is growing, he tells them, and they're not trying to stem the tide.

"You haven't done anything," says Jassim Bedawi. "When Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Hamza got killed, what had you citizens done to prevent their deaths?"

Mayor Bedawi is a rare phenomenon: an Iraqi still willing to participate in a democratic institution once seen as central to the rebuilding of Iraq. No other city council operates in the insurgent-riddled Anbar Province. But the embattled Bedawi – whose family, like those of other members, is under threat of kidnapping or worse – continues to forge ahead in one of the most stressful jobs the city has to offer. No debates over parking or playground equipment occupy his agenda. Issues of life and death occupy him and a number of city councilors who meet every Tuesday – as well as the question of whether they will survive a US pullback from the city. The Marine presence is reviled by many here, even though many recognize its importance to maintain some level of protection and even reconstruction.

"The people of Fallujah are not standing with me," the mayor complains, saying that without such support, asking for help from the central government could "get my head cut off, or a member of my family kidnapped."

"Citizens can't just come here and make requests," says Bedawi. "They must also give support."

Two years after US marines invaded Fallujah to force out insurgents who had made the city off limits to US forces, militants are filtering back into the city, despite only six entry points, which are heavily guarded. Since August, they have waged a campaign of intimidation that has left two key councilmen and the deputy chief of police chief murdered, and a trail of threats against those who persist.

The previous mayor fled to Syria earlier this year, after a dispute with the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad over his plans to raise a local Sunni militia.

On this day in late November, the meeting begins with three men who complain about shootings by US Marines – one of them fatal – of their sons and a nephew. They demand prosecution of the "snipers" involved, and their removal.

The council also discusses compensation by the military for occupation of certain properties; they had previously dismissed 300 false claims by residents. They talk of the need for US forces to "get close to the people" and how the US election is likely to change their lives. They ponder who will guard the phone exchange after repairs by US forces.

"I'm in awe.... Against all odds, they continue to meet," says Col. Lawrence Nicholson, the Marine regimental combat team commander who attends every meeting. "I don't know how resilient we [Americans] would be, if [insurgents] came to our door and said: 'We will kill your family.' "

"Witness No. 1," a man called Khalid with a bandaged wrist and his arm in a sling, tells how his teenage son Hamidi was shot by a Marine "sniper" on Oct. 30 from Observation Post Fenton, a tall house with three lookout positions on the main east-west artery. The son died a week later; Khalid was wounded, and a neighbor boy who came to assist him was also shot.

The family home is near OP Fenton. Marines there, officers say, believed that Hamidi was armed with a grenade.

"No matter how much compensation, it will not be worth a dime when I go to my son's funeral," Khalid told the council and the officers present. "I want the sniper to be prosecuted, according to the law."

A third witness speaks of a shooting of his nephew from the "sniper's building" on Nov. 19. He asks that the position be moved, "because the sniper does not differentiate between terrorists and civilians."

Colonel Nicholson – a stickler on abuse, say marines under his command – stands, promising a full investigation and "my word that we will clean up this situation."

"What we have heard is ... a tragic event for all of us who call Fallujah home," says Nicholson, reminding them that he has investigated "every allegation" in his 10 months in Iraq.

"In many cases, we have pulled marines who do not act properly out of the city," Nicholson says. "I have sent marines back to the US, because they did not deserve to be able to serve here. They had betrayed my trust; I lost confidence in them."

"I must point out that this sniper position is where it is to save all lives," he says, noting that three Marines had been shot at by Iraqi snipers in the previous 48 hours.

"While I will not tolerate a Marine shooting an innocent, I think we all have to understand ... the number of IEDs [roadside bombs] that are planted in this city every day ... kill police, Iraqi Army and marines, and wound them," says Nicholson. "I could spend every meeting parading 30 victims in here."

The shooting illustrates the difficulty of policing a Sunni city where insurgent attacks have spiked, and the population – according to uncertain military estimates – has jumped by some 80,000 to about 350,000 from before the invasion of late 2004, which destroyed much of the city.

Marine officers note that, in the 45 days prior to the shooting incident, marines had reported a half-dozen incidents of teenagers or children throwing grenades at US forces. "This is the tough thing that is Fallujah," says Lt. Col. Harold Van Opdorp, a commander from Stafford, Va., of the 1/24 Marines battaltion, with units in the city. An initial investigation concluded that the shooter believed the teen was throwing a grenade, though it was not clear if such a weapon was located.

The marines have seen a "significant increase in the level of violence" directed at them in Fallujah in the last four months, says Colonel Van Opdorp.

That dynamic adds a degree of combustibility on the streets as the Marine presence shrinks. There are now fewer than 300 marines who work in Fallujah, and half of those are not based inside the city limits. Most are likely to be pulled back in the next few months.

The mayor notes that the area around OP Fenton is relatively safe, and that there should be communication between the sniper and residents. "If a sniper actually sees someone place an IED, yes, please shoot them," says Bedawi. "Look at this sniper incident, which has set a bad example for all the citizens of Fallujah of the marines."

Clouding all the proceedings are the pall of numerous threats, and the awareness that, outside this fortified meeting place, these men and one woman are top targets for insurgents. The mayor relates threats aimed at his wife, sent by cellphone, and warnings against his family. At one point, he lowers his head into his arms in despair. Later, while discussing the theft of city and business property, he laments how little good citizenship seems to be taught by the 76 mosques here.

But Fallujah is buffeted as much as any city in Iraq by forces beyond local control. The US State Department official for Fallujah, Kael Weston, stands up to describe the consequences of the shift of congressional power far away in Washington.

The mood in America about Iraq is that "people are anxious," Mr. Weston tells the council. "It pains them as much as it pains you, to see the kidnapping in Baghdad, and see the killing that's going on. But Americans are not the most patient people in the world [and] are looking for changes.

"So until I leave and the marines leave, we will make small steps [of progress], and that is probably the most lasting contribution we can make," says Weston.

"We've made many mistakes, and I've not pretended otherwise. And unlike most Americans, I've lived through 3-1/2 years of those mistakes," adds Weston. "I think it would also be unfair to indict the American government, because we did not have a perfect crystal ball."

Still, he says, the future "will be determined more by you and less by us. And that's not necessarily because we wanted it that way, but that's the reality we face."

"This is escaping from the reality," protests "Engineer Khalid," a councilman.

"If Iraq fails, America fails – I've said that before," replies Weston. "And we don't like to fail."

The meeting shifts to talk of school opening days, and the US colonel asks who will protect the telephone-exchange boxes.

"Americans will guard it," suggests the mayor, helpfully.

"We're supposed to be going home!" replies an exasperated Nicholson. "Americans guarding this is a step backward, not a step forward."

The next issue: The recent killing of one British and three Iraqi security contractors, while trying to deliver crucial medical equipment to a local clinic.

"The simple, ordinary people thought that the Ministry of Interior [which is Shiite controlled, and widely blamed for operating death squads against Sunnis in Baghdad] sent three trucks of medicine, most of it expired and poisoned," explains Engineer Khalid. "We support you, [but] this was something taken advantage of by the other side, to aggravate the people."

The question for Fallujans is whether such an atrocity will be more likely, or less, after Americans withdraw.

Bedawi voices concern for the day when Fallujah is handed back fully to Iraqis. When asked how capable the council will be then, he pulls a reporter aside.

"We don't want the Americans to leave until the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police are rebuilt and well armed, and they kill a lot of people from Al Qaeda, and dismantle militias, and kill extremists," he says. "After that, the Americans can leave."

"I think we are capable enough, to do our work without the help of any side," says secretary Abbas Ali Hussein with a well-practiced optimism after the meeting. "No one in our city council is intimidated."

"Rebuilding now is going on very well; people are appreciating what is going on," says Mr. Hussein, adding that vigilante groups are being formed to go after militants. "There is a wakening in the city toward us, and ideological disgust of Al Qaeda.

"People have begun to realize their interests, [and that militants] are pushed by foreign hands, just to kill the will of the people toward welfare and prosperity," he continues. "Everybody who works for the sake of his people and his country – he will be secured first by God."

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