Advertisement

A Battle for Hearts, Minds and Electricity

Times Staff Writer

The next invasion of this battered city has begun.

Teams of reconstruction experts have set up shop in the municipal government complex downtown, having commandeered a former youth sports complex to serve as their headquarters. There, they have launched a crucial, large-scale effort aimed at rebuilding a city that was devastated during the U.S.-led offensive to take control of the longtime rebel stronghold.

“It’s not something that is going to be completed in the next few days,” Marine Col. John Ballard acknowledged Saturday as he left a briefing for commanders and dignitaries. “This is weeks and months of effort.”

Ballard, 46, should know. He is on leave from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he teaches post-hostilities reconstruction. He heads the 4th Civil Affairs Group, the Washington-based reserve unit that is overseeing the rebuilding effort.

Advertisement

With much of the world watching each development, Fallouja is due to undergo a complete makeover under the direction of U.S. officials and their allies in the Iraqi interim government.

Although initial work is underway, much of the ambitious effort in Fallouja cannot begin until security improves. Despite coalition control of the city, snipers’ bullets whiz through the air and explosions are heard throughout the day. It also remains unclear when residents will be allowed to return to their homes and businesses, many of which have suffered extensive damage.

On Friday, William Taylor, director of the reconstruction office at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said small projects in Fallouja could start within a week or two if rebel activity came to a halt.

Fallouja has served as an inspiration and a military nerve center for the insurgency, but U.S. officials are banking on turning the city into a showcase for the new Iraq.

Advertisement

On Saturday, top U.S. and Iraqi functionaries surveyed the civic hub and made an obligatory stop at the former sports building that now houses the Civil Military Operations Center, the planning headquarters for the project. A boxing ring and weight-training gym are still part of the facility, but not for long because the rebuilders plan to revamp and add on to the building.

*

A Tab Estimated at $100 Million

Outside, bulldozers made way for new structures. Almost all of Fallouja’s infrastructure has to be restored or built from scratch. “This is going to be a challenge -- politically as well as from the reconstruction standpoint,” said Taylor, who was visiting Saturday from Baghdad.

The initial cost estimate is at least $100 million, which will come from U.S. and Iraqi coffers. Officials emphasize that Iraqis will be hired for the hands-on construction, a public works mega-project that is certain to help spur the economy. The estimate includes compensation to the many residents whose homes and businesses were damaged in the fighting.

“Falloujans will do the work,” pledged Taylor, whose office is charged with dispensing billions of dollars for rebuilding efforts nationwide.

One huge obstacle: winning the Falloujans over. They have been persistently hostile to the U.S. presence in Iraq, even though U.S. commanders say the offensive to expel insurgents was undertaken in their name. Many residents may have resented the rebels, but it is unclear that they welcome U.S. troops or Iraq’s central government.

“How can we know if life will be better now?” asked Riad Jassim, 29, who came to one of the humanitarian assistance sites set up by U.S. troops. “We really don’t know what will happen next.”

Advertisement

Fallouja sits in the middle of the nation’s Arab Sunni Muslim heartland, where feelings of disenfranchisement after the ouster of Saddam Hussein have stoked the fervent insurgency. As residents return, the scope of the destruction of livelihoods and homes is sure to anger many.

However, U.S. officials are encouraged by their plans to improve Falloujans’ lives.

“It goes to the old cliche: winning the hearts and minds,” said Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division, who checks the status of reconstruction frequently. “We hope that by our good deeds, we will show them.”

*

Compensation for Damage and Casualties

The U.S. has promised to compensate residents for property damage, deaths and injuries. “This place is going to get very busy very quickly,” said Maj. James Orbock, who works in civil affairs at the center. “It’s just like in America. If someone is handing you money, you’re going to go there.”

But a similar compensation plan in the Shiite Muslim city of Najaf -- where the destruction wrought by a Marine-led offensive in August was much less extensive -- has run into delays and other problems.

A looming question is when residents will return to Fallouja, once home to nearly 300,000 people. There is no timetable, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

Advertisement

The vast majority fled before the invasion. Today, Fallouja is under strict military occupation: U.S. tanks, troops and convoys control the major roads. Sporadic combat continues -- two Marines were killed Friday when a man holding a white flag ducked into a courtyard, grabbed his Kalashnikov and fired, the military said.

Thunderous explosions punctuate the hours, though most are controlled blasts of the vast stores of munitions that have been found here.

Only occasionally do terrified civilians emerge onto the debris-strewn streets, inevitably with white flags. They are usually seeking food, water or medical aid. U.S. and Iraqi troops control the city’s entrances and exits. Many hazards remain inside, including snipers, buildings close to collapse, dangling power lines, and pools of sewage and corpses, which can breed disease. There is no running water or electricity.

“We are absolutely not trying to rush anything,” said Brig. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division. “We want to be sure we do this very deliberately and very completely -- and very safely.”

Once the decision is made to allow people to come back, officials say, the process will be gradual, perhaps neighborhood by neighborhood as they are deemed safe. First, Marines plan to finish going through every house, Natonski said, a daunting task in itself. A priority is ensuring that the guerrillas do not filter back in.

For U.S. commanders, the nightmare scenario is that Fallouja will become a version in miniature of the entire Iraq operation -- a spectacularly successful initial invasion followed by a guerrilla campaign that thwarts reconstruction plans.

“Did we get each and every insurgent? No,” acknowledged Lt. Col. George Bristol, intelligence officer for the 1st Marine Division. “Some could come back. But this is a place that the insurgents thought would remain their stronghold. Now we’re giving it back to the Iraqi people.”

Ballard is the point man for this phase of the battle. He knows the military way of doing things. His wife, Rose, is a brigade commander at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. His daughter, Renee, is an Army captain serving in South Korea.

“We’ve looked at the banks, the water treatment plant, the sewage plant, the electricity, the hospitals and the medical clinics,” Ballard said as he inspected the mayor’s offices, where city officials will work after the Iraqi government appoints a mayor. “We’ve been to the railway station.... We could be facing a much bigger problem if we don’t make sure the city is cleared before the population returns.”

A computer program has been developed that uses satellite images of Fallouja to provide daily updates on the condition of the city’s infrastructure. Military and civilian officials will be able to log on to the secure site and see exactly where matters stand.

At the moment, many water lines are broken. Until they are fixed, Ballard said, tanker trucks will probably be used to provide water to returning civilians at central distribution points.

He is hopeful that the electrical grid can be repaired with some dispatch. “They had electricity here, and it worked fairly well,” Ballard said.

Many lines are down, however, posing a danger when the power is restored. “We need to get all the electrical lines up off the ground,” he added.

As Ballard headed to the mayor’s office one recent morning, a bullet flew past, one of the occasional sniper rounds that continue to hit the complex. He pointed to a pile of orange crates scattered outside, part of an aborted plan to collect trash in the city.

“It appears they just bought a new trash system,” Ballard said to an aide. “If we could just find a truck that goes with them.”

Inside, Navy Seabees and other engineers were working feverishly to restore what passes for Fallouja’s City Hall. A meeting room had been cleared of debris; a large carpet covered the floor, and roomy chairs lined the walls.

“We want the mayor to have an appropriate place to conduct his business,” Ballard explained. “A kind of government hub.”

Another challenge is explaining how people should interact with government. Fallouja has been through several administrations since U.S. forces toppled Hussein and his Baathist regime. But none has provided much stability.

The mayor’s office and various police stations were often attacked after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The city fell under the sway of insurgents last April, after Marines pulled out following an offensive that provoked outrage because of reports of large-scale civilian casualties. This time, most civilians had fled by the time U.S. forces swooped down from the north.

*

Tough Task of Building Police Force

Fallouja needs a government, and it needs a police force. A brigade of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army will probably be brought in as a temporary police force, Ballard said. But local police will be hired and trained, he added.

Ballard acknowledged the difficulties of fielding a force in a country where hundreds of police officers have been slain as collaborators with U.S. troops.

Citizens of Fallouja may join the new police force, Ballard said.

Some observers believe, however, that residents will be subject to too much intimidation to maintain an effective force.

Insurgents and former officers allied with the guerrillas will be excluded, Ballard said. Fallouja’s men will be willing to serve, he said.

“It would be difficult to have a police force completely made up of people who are not from Fallouja,” he noted.

Like other U.S. officers on the ground here, Ballard is optimistic that the gargantuan task will succeed.

“The fighting part was the first part,” Ballard said, leaving yet another briefing on where things stand in Fallouja. “That was the most dangerous part. But the critical part is putting this all back together.”


Advertisement