FALLUJAH, Iraq—Mustafa Kareem climbed off the bus into a crowd of women in ankle-length black robes who were clutching bottles of water and stacks of blankets. The mid-day sun beat down, and their faces were weary.
They had returned to Fallujah this week wondering whether their houses were still standing and how they might start their lives again.
Kareem—21, clean-shaven and handsome, with carefully slicked back hair and dirt on his jeans—wondered the same as he proclaimed his humble mission.
"I want to bring my sister toys," Kareem said. "She just keeps crying for them."
As Iraqi and American politicians talk about the promise of democracy and national elections scheduled for the end of this month, only a fraction of Fallujah's 300,000 residents have returned home. Many are coming from the cold, filthy camps they fled to before a U.S. offensive in November to retake the rebel town.
After months of air strikes, the November fighting was marked by heavy barrages of artillery, tank fire and house-to-house battles. Bradley Fighting Vehicles rammed front gates and fired grenades through walls. Hundreds if not thousands of homes were left in shambles.
So far, about 40,000, or fewer than 20 percent of the town's population, have begun coming back, according to Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the senior U.S. ground commander in Iraq. The Iraqi interim government on Saturday put the figure at 60,000 and said it expected the rest to return by Jan. 14.
Like Kareem, most returnees are sent by family members who themselves cannot yet bear to see their ravaged town. The Islamic extremists who intimidated them into obedience are now replaced by gruff U.S. soldiers who take their fingerprints and scan their eyes.
"The insurgents are destined to failure, and freedom will prevail," Metz said. "For example, in recent operations in Fallujah we denied the insurgents, terrorists, a safe haven."
Others contend that in their attempt to quash the insurgency, U.S. troops may have only strengthened its ranks, creating a generation of Iraqis so inflamed by the assault that they take up arms.
"In the coming days, there will be suicide attacks on that town. They will use the same methods as the (Palestinian) Hamas movement," said Salman al Jumaili, a Baghdad University professor, insurgency expert and Fallujah native.
Nadhim Jassour agreed. A professor of international relations at Baghdad University, Jassour said "the Americans were mistaken in their calculations ... they must understand that revenge is an Arab characteristic."
Outside the town, hundreds of Fallujah citizens stood in a long passage created by bales of concertina wire. At the end of the line, a U.S. soldier sat at a table with an interpreter and asked people for name and marital status, then took all 10 fingerprints. They also were told to look into a box, which scanned their retinas.
"It is just like POW camps that we've seen in movies," said Ma'an Kamil, who stood waiting with his 9-year-old son, Suhaib, holding on to his leg.
Kareem had waited out the fighting in a two-room apartment in the countryside with seven family members. On Monday, his father sent the college student—he was studying to be a math teacher before his school was closed because of the fighting between insurgents and U.S. soldiers—to check on their home.
A neighbor told Kareem's family that their house had been spared from the bombing, but he feared the neighbor was being kind.
After being scanned, printed and interviewed, Kareem walked from one road to the next, looking in awe at mounds of rubble where buildings used to stand. He motioned up ahead: "The next street to the right is our house."
A minute later, he stopped. His dark eyes traced the ground in front of him. All that stood of his house was a bedroom. All around it, the walls of the kitchen, living room and other bedrooms were gone, blasted to bits and chunks of concrete. He took a few steps forward and was standing on what had been the roof he slept under.
His lips trembled.
"No," he said. "Why ...?" Then he fell silent.
Eventually he began picking through the debris. There was a doll with blonde hair, in a pink dress, with one leg missing and one of its eyelids shut.
"Here it is," he said, tears on his face. "This is what I've come for."
He sat down in a garden in front of the house, brushing soot off the doll's plastic face.
Kareem mumbled to himself, saying "God damn it" and "thank God" and then "God damn it" again.
A few minutes passed. He stood up.
"I don't know what I'm going to tell them," he said.
He began to walk back to the bus, still holding the doll.
(A Knight Ridder special correspondent who cannot be named for security reasons reported the majority of this story from Fallujah. It was written by Lasseter in Baghdad.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.