FALLOUJA, Iraq — Even as small groups of guerrillas continued putting up fierce resistance here today, U.S. commanders were preparing for the next phase of the operation: the complete reconstruction of a city that has been devastated in battle.
"It's a monumental task," said Marine Maj. Timothy Hanson, one of the first civil affairs officers on the scene to assess the scope of destruction in the city that had become the tactical and inspirational capital of the Iraqi insurgency.
Elsewhere in Iraq today, U.S. forces reportedly killed more than two dozen people in Baqouba and south of Baghdad in battles launched on the ground and in the air against Iraqi rebels. No U.S. soldiers were reported killed in the fighting, although at least four were wounded.
Also, two of three relatives of interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who were taken captive last week, have been released, the Iraqi government said. While there was no word on Ghazi Allawi, 75, a cousin of the prime minister, Ghazi's wife and daughter-in-law were freed.
Reconstruction of Fallouja is on hold as the fighting persists, especially in southern areas of the city, where some of the most diehard guerrillas are reported to be making a last stand. Some have burrowed underground, prompting U.S. forces Saturday to drop a 2,000-pound bomb — the most powerful munition used here to date — on a tunnel complex.
Marines and allied Iraqi troops sweeping through the southern neighborhoods have found numerous bomb-making factories and massive arms caches, underscoring Fallouja's role as a supply center for the insurgency nationwide, commanders say. Moving the vast storehouses of weapons and destroying them has proved a logistical challenge in this war-ravaged city.
"We want to clean this city up," said Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division. "We want to get the people back here. But we can't bring them back until the city is secure."
Automatic weapons fire and explosions continued to rock the center of the city, though much diminished in the past day. The U.S. military reported that at least 38 American troops and six Iraqi soldiers had been killed in eight days of fighting.
Insurgents on Sunday also destroyed the highway bridge in Baiji, forcing the closure of the main road from the northern city of Mosul to Baghdad. In Mosul, U.S. and Iraqi troops fought a six-hour battle with insurgents, and casualties were believed to be heavy, although hospital officials refused to discuss figures. Militants seized a police station, but U.S. and Iraqi forces regained control.
In Baghdad, more than a dozen insurgents attacked the Polish Embassy and exchanged gunfire with embassy guards for half an hour, a Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Warsaw. No one was reported killed or wounded.
In Fallouja, U.S. troops said they found the mutilated body of a woman covered with a blood-soaked cloth in a street. News services quoted a Marine saying he was "80% positive the body was that of a Westerner." Two Western women are known to have been kidnapped and are still missing: Margaret Hassan, the director of CARE International here, and a Polish woman who is married to an Iraqi.
The reconstruction effort in Fallouja will require tens of millions of dollars in U.S. funds to compensate residents for damaged property and to rebuild large parts of the city damaged by weeks of U.S. airstrikes and street-by-street fighting.
The project seems likely to dwarf the large-scale rebuilding scheme in the southern city of Najaf, where damage was estimated at $500 million after a Marine offensive in August ousted Shiite Muslim militiamen.
Fallouja once was home to about 300,000 people, though most fled before U.S.-led forces launched the assault early last week. The city now lies abandoned and in ruins, a tableau of the aftermath of urban warfare.
The town's main east-west drag, a key objective of U.S. troops, is a tangle of rubble-filled lots and shot-up storefronts. Shattered water and sewage pipes have left pools of sewage-filled water, sometimes knee-deep. Scorched and potholed streets are filled with debris; power lines droop in tangles or lie on the ground.
Many mosques, the city's pride and joy, are a shambles after insurgents used them as shelter and firing positions, drawing return fire from the Marines.
Houses have been ransacked by insurgents and further damaged as U.S. troops chased snipers, searched for weapons caches or took cover in the homes. Marines routinely called in tanks, artillery and airstrikes to take out gunmen.
But the bombed-out buildings are only the most obvious damage.
There is no running water or electricity. The water, power and sewage infrastructure will probably need complete overhauls.
Food distribution systems must be reinstituted. Shops must be reopened, commerce resumed. Battered hospitals, clinics and schools must be patched up and reopened.
Beyond that, U.S. officials have lofty plans to help install a democratic government here that will answer to Allawi's administration. A police force of more than 1,000 officers must be deployed in a city where police have been consistently targeted for assassination in the past as collaborators with the Americans.
"The challenge is to get a civil administration up and running, and they are starting from zero," said a senior U.S. diplomat. "They have to do everything from getting the director of the waterworks to come back to work to getting a chief of police."
And, if all that wasn't enough, commanders would like the city to be ready to hold peaceful elections in January, when Iraqis nationwide are scheduled to choose a national assembly.
In all, it is a colossal challenge of nation-building — albeit concentrated in one city — made all the more difficult because Fallouja remains in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, long a source of support for ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and resistance to U.S. and coalition forces.
"This is very important: to restore the infrastructure of the city and get the Iraqi government and the police established, and keep the insurgents from coming back in," Natonski said.
Despite the clear military gains, the city remains insecure enough that major civil affairs units that will oversee reconstruction have yet to arrive. But more than $50 million in contracts has already been let, and people are standing by, ready to start work as soon as it is safe enough.
A coordinating team — including officials from the U.S. military and civilian agencies as well as the Iraqi government — has been meeting for the last two weeks to figure out how to spend the roughly $200 million allocated for Fallouja and nearby Ramadi.
Overall responsibility for rebuilding Fallouja will fall to the Marines' 4th Civil Affairs Group, a largely reserve unit based in Washington that is poised on the outskirts of the city.
Mortuary teams to pick up the remains of hundreds of insurgents killed in the fighting also have been held back, as bodies rot in the streets.
"It's a health hazard," conceded Natonski. "We'll soon be taking care of that We just need to ensure that we're not taking casualties taking care of bodies."
It is unclear when residents will be allowed back into the city. A 24-hour curfew is in effect, and those civilians still present have been warned to stay in their homes, as food and water supplies dwindle. U.S. and Iraqi forces have been handing out emergency water and rations.
On Sunday, when Muslims marked the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, virtually no one was seen on the streets besides U.S. troops and their guerrilla quarry.
Marines are constructing a displaced-persons camp east of the city, though most former residents appear to have settled in with extended family members in Baghdad and elsewhere.
The abandonment of the city made the Marines' job a lot easier during combat, reducing the threat of civilian casualties.
Now, commanders worry that a large-scale return of residents — and vehicles — will increase the peril, especially from suicide car bombers.
"As civilians begin driving around, the [car bomb] threat is going to be at its highest point," said Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl, commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.
Plans are already in place to screen returning civilians, especially military-age males. But differentiating between fighters and noncombatants is likely to be a difficult task, given that many of Fallouja's native sons are known to have joined the insurgency.
In the works is some kind of "Welcome Back to Fallouja" campaign, directing residents to military civil affairs offices where people can find reconstruction help.
"It won't be a fruit basket or anything like that," said Hanson, the Marine major. He had $500,000 in cash for various expenses: compensating civilians who had suffered property losses or injuries or lost relatives deemed not to be insurgents.
Money also will be spread around to pay residents to help clean up the streets, assuming the people of Fallouja would be willing to take money from Americans and overcome fears of being branded collaborators.
Establishing security will be essential to allowing U.S. personnel and Iraqi contractors to work.
"We have to be able to allow the Iraqis to come in and work freely and independently without being terrorized and intimidated and corrupted," said Hanson, a reservist and police sergeant from suburban Omaha. "If they go into a building, they shouldn't have to worry about that."
U.S. officials also hope to work with civilian leaders to select a representative council. Thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers are said to be ready to be deployed to Fallouja. Many are from outside the city, in the hopes that they will be less susceptible to intimidation.
The entire municipal government complex must be rebuilt and secured. The police station, City Hall and other government buildings have been seriously damaged, heavily looted and are occupied by Marines.
The compound is probably going to be refurbished and expanded to house both the Iraqi government and U.S. forces, commanders say.
Inside an adjacent school complex where Marines also are posted, state-of-the-art photocopy machines and refrigerators stand gutted and abandoned, the remnants of earlier U.S.-funded reconstruction efforts. Marines say they are confident the next attempt to rebuild Fallouja will spur goodwill and divert people from supporting the insurgency.
"We're poised and ready to go to help Fallouja rebuild," said Marine Capt. Matt Nodine, an attorney for the 1st Battalion. "People will know where to find us if they need help."
Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad, special correspondents Caesar Ahmed and Roaa Ahmed in Mosul and Associated Press contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times