War-ravaged Iraq city ‘alive again’

The bridge from which a mob hung the bodies of slain U.S. security workers in 2004 is a key part of Fallouja’s recovery. It is to be widened so more people can enter the city.
(Tony Perry / Los Angeles Times)
Time Staff Writer

The one-lane bridge over the Euphrates River where a mob hung the charred bodies of slain Americans four years ago is now a focal point in the revitalization of this war-ravaged city.

The Iraqi government and the U.S. plan to widen the pedestrian pathways on either side of the bridge so shoppers can stream into Fallouja’s western neighborhood and buy food, clothing and other goods from stores that again line the streets of a city once given up for dead.

The comeback of Fallouja, the site of two major battles between Marines and insurgents in 2004, surprises even the most optimistic U.S. planners.

“It continues to outpace all expectations,” said Navy Capt. John Dal Santo, part of a State Department-funded effort called the Provincial Reconstruction Team for Fallouja.

City Council leader Sheik Hamed Ahmed said that he was pleased with the city’s progress but that he needed more generators for his neighborhood. Ahmed’s three predecessors were assassinated by insurgents, but he has refused to back down.

“Fallouja is alive again,” he said.

Restaurants, bakeries, photo shops, tire stores, Internet cafes, a body-building studio and other businesses line the avenues and side streets. BMWs share lanes with donkey carts on congested thoroughfares.

The Anbar provincial government and the central government in Baghdad have poured tens of millions of dollars into street repair, rubble removal and school reconstruction. The governor has assigned what Americans might call ward heelers to tend to the needs of the city’s nine districts.

In 2004, Fallouja was a major base for the emerging Sunni Arab insurgency. On March 31 of that year, it was also the site of one of the most macabre images since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: young Iraqi men dancing in glee as the burned remains of American private security workers hung from the aging bridge.

Most civilians fled the city before the second Marine assault, in November 2004. And there are still signs of the fierce battles: crumpled buildings, downed power lines and bullet-riddled homes.

Other problems also remain: an undersized police department; shortages of electricity, clean water and gasoline; high unemployment; and a small but resistant cadre of insurgents waiting to launch a counterattack.

Yet Fallouja is vibrant again, and its population has climbed back close to its pre-assault level of about 300,000.

Police are on the streets. A new hospital is set to open this spring, funded by the U.S. and the Iraqis. Marines have removed many of the barriers and concertina wire that gave the city what one officer called the “Berlin 1945 look.”

There have been soccer tournaments and art contests. And there are plans for a soft-drink bottling plant.

“Fallouja has gone through a metamorphosis -- these people want their lives back,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Dowling, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “Fallouja has its soul back.”

Several hundred Marines live side by side with Iraqi police officers in outposts across the city. In five months, Dowling’s Marines have carried out 7,000 patrols in the city and its suburbs without suffering a fatality or major injury.

To ensure continued security progress, Marines conduct late-night raids several times a week after picking up intelligence about possible insurgent activities. The troops also have sought to provide employment to young Falloujans to help win their loyalty.

One of Dowling’s more successful efforts has been to pay youths $10 a day to pick up trash. Many of the main streets are now among the cleanest of any city in Anbar province.

Fallouja also has a court system and judges, unlike most cities in the province, which lies west of Baghdad. Elsewhere, judges who fled the country have not returned.

“Two years ago, even after the war was over, people were stealing and hiding,” Iraqi police officer Jassim Hamid Khousan said. “Now is better. God willing, if the insurgents come back, we will fight.”

Haji Mohammed Hussin feels safe enough to reopen and expand his kebab restaurant, closed when the city was controlled by insurgents. He also owns a restaurant in Baghdad that remains closed, he said, because it has been confiscated by Shiite Muslim militiamen.

When Dowling stopped by to drink tea, Hussin had a request: Extend the hours at the main checkpoint so more people can come in from the suburbs for a late dinner.

“We need more people,” Hussin said.

Done. The checkpoint will stay open an hour later.

An estimated 20,000 people a day stream through five checkpoints to shop or work in the city. The checkpoints are staffed by Marines, Iraqi police and an all-female contingent called the Sisters of Fallouja.

This is the second Fallouja assignment for the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. It was a lead unit in the November 2004 assault, suffering 19 fatalities. Most of the current officers and enlisted are new to the battalion.

But some are veterans from 2004, including Staff Sgt. Terrance Gant, who remembers the fight to recapture the bridge. Marines attacked insurgent strongholds from the north, south and east -- pushing west toward the bridge was one of the final objectives.

Gant visited the bridge and adjoining streets the other day and found small boys selling ice cream, a fishmonger hawking catfish, and food and trinket stores doing a brisk business.

“This is a step forward,” Gant said. “It shows me my Marines didn’t die in vain.”