July 15, 2005

8 Months After U.S.-Led Siege, Insurgents Rise Again in Falluja



FALLUJA, Iraq, July 12 - Transformed into a police state after last winter's siege, this should be the safest city in all of Iraq.

Thousands of American and Iraqi troops live in crumbling buildings here and patrol streets laced with concertina wire. Any Iraqi entering the city must show a badge and undergo a search at one of six checkpoints. There is a 10 p.m. curfew.

But the insurgency is rising from the rubble nevertheless, eight months after the American military killed as many as 1,500 Iraqis in a costly invasion that fanned anti-American passions across Iraq and the Arab world.

Somewhere in the bowels of Falluja, the former guerrilla stronghold 35 miles west of Baghdad, where four American contractors were killed in an ambush, and the bodies of two were hanged from a bridge, in March 2004, insurgents are building suicide car bombs again.

At least four have exploded in recent weeks, one of them killing six American troops, including four women. Two of five police forts being erected have been firebombed. Three members of the nascent, 21-seat city council have suddenly quit and another member has stopped attending meetings, presumably because they have been threatened.

Just as disturbing, even Falluja residents who favored purging the streets of insurgents last November are beginning to chafe under the occupation.

"Some preferred the city quiet, purified of the gunmen and any militant aspect," said Abdul Jabbar Kadhim al-Alwani, 40, the owner of an automotive repair shop, expressing a widely held sentiment. "But after the unfairness and injustice with which the city's residents have been treated by the American and Iraqi forces, they now prefer the resistance, just so they won't be humiliated."

In a state of perpetual lockdown, Falluja is far more secure today than it was before the November invasion, and safer than nearby Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency. In the elections in January, when only 2 percent of Anbar's eligible voters went to the polls, a reasonably secure Falluja was a singular bright spot, with about a third of eligible voters taking part. The city had 30,000 residents then.

But Falluja is approaching a turning point, American officials acknowledge, precariously balanced between rebuilding or degenerating into the urban battlefield it once was.

Tribal sheiks say they are urging residents to vote in the national elections set for December, one of the most positive signs that rebellious Sunni Arabs may be brought into the political process. But there is no doubt that the homegrown insurgency still has popular support here.

"It's a key moment right now for Falluja," said an American diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of government protocol. "We're starting to see friction, and we're starting to see the insurgents try to rebound. As more people come back into the city, the likelihood of infiltration increases."

Regaining control of Falluja from the American and Iraqi forces is a critical goal for the insurgency, American military commanders here say. For much of last year, this city of 300,000 was the largest haven in Iraq for the guerrillas, suspected of being the source of suicide car bombs in Baghdad and videos showing the beheadings of foreigners.

It came to represent resistance to American power, not just for people in Iraq but for many Arabs throughout the Middle East. Now, the city is emerging as the most important test of whether recalcitrant Sunnis can be forced to submit to rule by Shiites and Kurds, who hold the major seats of power in Baghdad.

Lt. Col. Rip Miles, executive officer of Regimental Combat Team 8, the 4,300-strong Marine unit charged with controlling the Falluja area, said the insurgents "believe it's valuable to them."

"Rightly or wrongly, Falluja means something," he said.

The Americans took control of the city last November, when the military engaged in the fiercest urban combat it had seen since the Vietnam War. Dozens of troops died and hundreds were wounded in the eight-day siege, and half of Falluja, once hailed as the "City of Mosques," was destroyed, while another quarter suffered structural damage.

Much of it remains in ruins. The cityscape is punctuated by the stumps of minarets, their tops having been blown off by American bombs or missiles. Rubble spills from many buildings along Highway 10, the main east-west artery that bisects the city. The industrial neighborhood to the south, Shuhada, is in such bad shape that families cannot move back. Electricity levels are still below what they were last November, and blackouts are frequent.

Yet, visible rebuilding is taking place. More than 140,000 of the city's original residents have returned. Groups of men hammer away at buildings, and shops and restaurants have reopened in some neighborhoods. American officials say more homes have running water now than before November.

Right after the siege, the Americans doled out $8 million to 20,000 people as an initial reconstruction payment. Iraqi engineering teams estimated that 32,000 homes needed repairs and that the total cost of reconstruction would be $500 million. The government of Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, ordered a fifth of that to be paid out, and it was flown by helicopter to the main Marine base, called Camp Falluja.

The city's residents are eager to see the rest of the $500 million. The government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a religious

Shiite who took office in April, has not approved any more payments. That has raised concerns among local Iraqi leaders and Marine commanders, who say winning the trust of the Fallujans depends on a successful rebuilding effort.

"They've only given us a fifth of the reconstruction money," said Sheik Abdul Kadir Mamdoh Abdullah, 49, a stout white-robed leader in the Kubaisi tribe. "That's absolutely not enough. Why not give us at least half right now?"

Sheik Abdullah made those remarks to Marine commanders and a State Department official, John Kael Weston, at a recent meeting in the heavily fortified local government building in downtown Falluja. He was one of 23 sheiks who had come to discuss their grievances with the Americans. Their complaints ranged from the aggressive behavior of the Iraqi soldiers (mostly Shiite Arabs from the south) to the lack of electricity (as the meeting began, the power went out, forcing a shutdown of the room's single air-conditioner on a typical, 120-degree day).

But a glimmer of hope emerged as Mr. Weston asked the sheiks whether they intended to participate in the December elections for a full-term national government.

"The sheiks and the leaders are educating the people to vote," Hamid Farhan Abdullah, 50, of the Mohamda tribe, said as he sat across from Mr. Weston. "They have to participate in the Iraqi elections and play a big role in the Iraqi government. They didn't take part earlier, and they have no representation now in the Iraqi government."

Another sign of political engagement surfaced last month, when about 200 local leaders met at a concrete plant outside the city. The participants drafted a 15-point manifesto to be presented to American and Iraqi officials. The memorandum began with the most often heard Sunni demand - setting a timetable for the withdrawal of American-led forces - but included suggestions on politics, among them forming a national committee "to write a constitution that should include all the people's rights now and in the future."

The political process here could be short-lived, though. Three members of the city council formed in the spring have resigned in recent weeks, including Sheik Hamza al-Issawi, considered the grand imam of Falluja. A fourth sheik stopped showing up for meetings after insurgents detonated a suicide car bomb in his front yard last month.

In mid-June, guerrillas also used a suicide car bomb to attack Brig. Gen. Mehdi Sabeeh Hashim, the commander of 800 Iraqi paramilitary troops deployed here, in addition to the 2,800 regular Iraqi soldiers. He survived, but the explosion killed at least one Iraqi. It was the second attempt on General Hashim's life in two months - insurgents tried to gun him down in Baghdad in May.

Colonel Miles said marines and Iraqi forces found or were attacked with homemade bombs almost every day, despite house-to-house searches last November that were supposed to have resulted in the seizure of all heavy weapons and explosives.

"There was so much stockpile in this city that it's not inconceivable that they can find plenty of materials to build bombs," he said.

As the level of violence has increased, marines and Iraqi soldiers are stepping up patrols and house raids. That is further alienating residents. The problem is compounded by sectarian tensions between the Shiite soldiers and Sunni residents. Virtually all of the Iraqi soldiers here are from the south, because previous militias of local residents turned out to be disloyal or fell apart when confronted by insurgents.

American officials say the plan is to draw down the American and Iraqi troop presence in the city as a 1,200-man Iraqi police force is installed by December, one-third of its members are to come from Falluja.

"The Iraqi Army is not trained," Sheik Thaier Diyab al-Arsan, 30, a thin man wearing a red headdress, angrily told Colonel Miles at the meeting downtown. "They're killing people. They're shooting people in the head. You're not in the street. You don't see what's happening."

An Iraqi employee of The New York Times, whose name is being withheld for security reasons, contributed reporting for this article.