WITH U.S. FORCES NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq—A group of U.S. Marines at the Fallujah Liaison Team headquarters were busy talking this week about their hopes for reconstruction when two 60 mm mortar rounds landed across the street, exploding loudly.
A barrage of American artillery fired in response, roaring and booming.
Everyone ran inside a low concrete building, and sat in silence, waiting to see if more mortar rounds were on the way.
And that was the end, for a while, of discussions about rebuilding Fallujah.
With Marines gearing up for an all-out assault to retake the city from rebel fighters, the liaison team's headquarters near the city are a stark reminder of the failed plans Americans have had, since the war's early days, to win this area.
When the Marines arrived in Fallujah last March, they planned to win hearts and minds by learning Iraqi customs, sipping tea with local leaders and handing out candy and soccer balls while on foot patrol.
But the liaison office is now more an outpost in enemy territory than the outreach center it was intended to be.
Guards looking through binoculars can see the blue-domed mosque and minarets down the road. But the compound is surrounded by high walls and dirt berms designed to discourage suicide bombers. The only residents the Marines speak with are those who travel to the compound, often to discuss being compensated for destroyed property or relatives who've been killed in fighting.
There are currently no reconstruction projects inside the city, and Marines are grateful when the incoming rounds are just mortars, not rockets. Most of the Marines who work at the liaison office, which is about a mile from Fallujah, have never set foot inside its city limits.
The Marines have $6 million earmarked for fixing battle-damaged buildings and repairing essential services within a month of an assault on Fallujah. Tens of millions of dollars more would follow.
The money, though, would become available only after a fight that could be days or weeks away; one that could ruin whole blocks of houses and buildings in a city already hit hard by daily U.S. airstrikes.
On a recent afternoon, brothers Ahmed and Mahmoud were waiting at the office to sign a contract for rebuilding a dilapidated mosque outside town. Young and wearing traditional Arab robes, they wouldn't give their last names to reporters, for fear of being shot by insurgents.
"There have been a lot of people killed because they were working for the Americans," Ahmed said.
It's not just contractors who've been killed. Marine Capt. Brian McLean said the commander of an Iraqi national guard battalion was kidnapped in August. Before dumping him dead on the side of the road, his captors beat him savagely and poured boiling water over his head.
Walking in to discuss their contract with Lt. Cmdr. David Hahn, Ahmed and Mahmoud shook hands, then put their hands over their hearts, a show of respect common in tribal areas such as Fallujah.
After sitting down to talk about the mosque, Ahmed pointed to a map on the table and told Hahn's translator that it was the spot where the mosque was.
Hahn's eyebrows raised in an unhappy arc. He turned to the translator and said, "Do not translate what I say, OK?" Then he motioned to the place Ahmed had indicated and told a reporter, "We call this the triangle of death."
Hahn looked at Ahmed, then asked the translator to tell him, "If you feel it's not safe to work, then don't work."
When the brothers left, Hahn said he knew that members of contractors' families had been murdered and kidnapped. Many of the contractors who aren't killed or kidnapped, he said, have to make steep payments of protection money to insurgents.
But this, he said, is Iraq: "You'd rather have them with a shovel than a gun in their hand."
When Ahmed and Mahmoud walked out of the liaison compound, their heads were down and they moved quickly. Unseen eyes might be watching.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FALLUJAH