How to Resurrect Fallujah

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Roslan Rahman / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. Marines keep watch in the restive southern city of Fallujah, 23 May 2007

The Sinaa industrial district in southeast Fallujah was once al-Qaeda's hive and bomb-making base in the city. And for Marine Capt. Sean Miller, a suicide bomber's vest found there a few days ago symbolizes the dilemma at the heart of U.S. thinking about leaving Iraq.

Three years ago, the U.S. all but razed Sinaa in Operation Al Fajr. At least 900 shops and factories were destroyed or seriously damaged in a district that employed about 70% of Fallujah's workforce. To fully revive the city, the area has to return to its old industrious self. But doing that may allow al-Qaeda to slip back in. Marine officials say the bomb-laden vest they found Thursday looked new enough to indicate that that's just what al-Qaeda is trying to do.

"There are still reports... of people trying to build bombs in Sinaa right now," Capt. Miller told a group of civic, business and religious leaders who met clandestinely Friday at a Marine outpost amid the junk heap of Fallujah's former industrial hub. "We don't need any more gunfire; we don't need any more bullets; we don't need any more explosions," he said. "This area is very important to Fallujah. No more suicide bombers should be here.... Let's get people back to work and force the insurgents out."

After the November 2004 battle that pulverized the city and snuffed out what was left of its economy, a succession of American infantry units developed a security plan for Fallujah that eventually carved it up into nine precincts along traditional divisions. The districts are now separated from each other by concrete barricades and Iraqi police checkpoints and watched by thousands of Iraqi police and armed neighborhood watchmen, leading to the nickname "Fortress Fallujah." "It's an unfortunate side effect of securing the city," Miller explained, reminding his Iraqi partners that the main drag through the city, which used to feed the district its lifeblood of customers and commercial traffic, is also part of the traditional "rat line" or infiltration route for insurgents.

With a current driving ban limiting traffic on the road mostly to buses and taxis, it will be some time before Fallujah allows full access to Sinaa. Eventually, the plan is to tear down the barriers one at a time to allow the city to gradually return to normal and end the state of martial law. Doing that in Sinaa could jump-start Fallujah's economy and revive a general sense of well-being and promise, solidifying gains and allowing the Marines to finally leave. "It's the key," said Waleed al Fallujy, Sinaa's mukhtar, or neighborhood chief, and charter member of the Fallujah Chamber of Commerce. "If we fix Sinaa, we fix all of Fallujah," he said.

While al-Qaeda remains the Americans' chief hang-up, locals say security is only one of their obstacles. The government in Baghdad stunts Fallujah's growth as much as al-Qaeda. After the two massive U.S. attacks on Fallujah in 2004, a government commission was set up to assess damage and calculate compensation for residents and business owners. The commission, however, fixated on some issues and dropped the ball on others, making some residents rich while leaving others empty-handed and disgruntled.

Chief among Fallujah's disgruntled proprietors are the shop and factory owners of Sinaa, who are last on the list after residential owners to receive a government check. Most are still waiting for their cash. With incentive to maintain the evidence of damage as an insurance policy until they get paid, few have rebuilt or reinvested and the entire zone remains a ghost town, a twisted testament of war and invitation to terrorists looking for a place to operate and hide.

Members of the Marine civil affairs unit working in Sinaa say they, too, are stuck in the same frustrating warp as the business owners. The success of their mission also depends on improving security and development in their zone. They've seen how fragile their hold is on the region and know what idleness breeds. A car bomb thought to be made there killed 40 people in Fallujah during a funeral procession in May, and a cell of bomb makers was cut down by Iraqi police in Sinaa as recently as August. They say they are in a race against time. "Al-Qaeda is very weak, but all of Fallujah is still afraid," said Al Fallujy, the Sinaa mukhtar. "We've got an opportunity here," said Chief Warrant Officer Steve Townsley, the head of the Marine civil affairs unit there. "Right now we're not so focused on security that we can't focus on business. So let's work together now."

Townsley pointed to local entrepreneurs, men such as Noori Idham, who see Fallujah's glass as half full. Calling himself a "realist," 47-year-old Idham said he is expanding his ice plant even at a loss, neither waiting for government help nor cowering before al-Qaeda. Lobbying the Marines at Friday's meeting to clear a road alongside his ice plant connecting him to the adjacent district of Shuhada, Idham said he is snatching up land and industrial facilities at bargain prices from owners who can no longer wait for the government compensation. "I know Fallujah will be back," he said. "It will prosper even better than it used to. Just wait."

Sheik Hamid Hussein, a local chief of the Jumaili tribe and head of the Fallujah council of mukhtars struck a positive note Friday but tempered Idham's optimism. "I'm not going to say it's very good, but it's good now, better," he said. He encouraged his fellows to be patient with the Marines and help them identify strangers in Sinaa, citing a local Arab proverb as the final word at Friday's meeting. "One who has seen death, can tolerate fever," he said with a raspy cackle and a knowing grin.

As the Marines climbed back aboard their Humvees to leave, the screen on their computerized mapping system showed that eight IEDs, or roadside bombs, had possibly been planted along their route back to the base. They chose another way home. "If the civilians want the bad guys out, they'll be out," Townsley said as they drove away. "But if they don't want them out, they won't be out. They either want it or they don't. It's either gonna happen or it ain't."