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Fallujah: From insurgent stronghold to `safest city in Iraq'

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Piles of rubble still line the streets here, but a few shops have opened on the main drag, schools are finally in session and a compensation program to help families rebuild made some token initial payments this month.

Four months after the assault on Fallujah, in the center of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, American forces working to rebuild the city say they're seeing some progress, albeit limited, in a city that's still blockaded and under a curfew.

Even a little progress is an important development in a city that's been a major test for the American presence in Iraq. On March 31, 2004, four U.S. contractors were ambushed and killed here, setting off a battle when U.S. Marines tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the insurgent forces that had taken control of the city.

The second battle began in November, when U.S. Army and Marine units moved through the city, destroying buildings and killing hundreds of opponents.

Now the reconstruction effort faces a problem—how to get life back to normal while preventing another uprising. The American forces say they're insisting that the Iraqi government take the lead and they admit that the work ahead will be slow going.

A group of Iraqi men shoveling dirt and sand in a vacant lot said much about the effort. "They're making big piles into little piles," joked one Marine, as he guided a group of journalists on a tour of the city this week.

The Marines could do the job in a couple of hours with a front-end loader but prefer to pay military-age men to get it done with the tools they have—giving the men an alternative to working with the insurgents and a chance for Iraqis to lead the reconstruction effort.

"If we did everything, we could do this faster," said Master Sgt. Leon Brown, of the Army's 445th Battalion, a reservist from Milpitas, Calif. "But how are the Iraqi people going to feel confident about their country or their government?"

American forces claim that Fallujah is now "the safest city in Iraq"—an assertion that's impossible to verify, though it's clear that the once-terrifying insurgency has been seriously crippled, mounting only small, scattered attacks in the city.

"The city is relatively quiet," said Marine Col. Mark Gurganus, who recently took command of U.S. forces in Fallujah. The insurgents "are not getting in here in the numbers that can organize or with the quantity of weapons there were before."

He's not willing to consider lifting some of the security measures, however. The price of hastily loosening the semi-blockade or lifting the curfew would be too high, he said.

So while American forces spend $50,000 to rebuild and resupply the Jolan Medical Clinic, some women are still having their babies at home, unable to get to the clinic at night because of the curfew, according to clinic director Najim Abed.

And while Marine units adopt and help rebuild schools such as the Palestine School for Boys and Girls, some students aren't able to get through the checkpoints to make it into the city for class, said gym teacher Sulaiman A. Ali Al-Mohamadi.

The southern half of the city is still without electricity. Water service, though now extended to almost all areas, is limited because residents can't power the pumps that bring the water into their homes, said Navy Lt. Chris Lankford. Only 1,000 of the 13,000 telephone subscribers before the war have had their service restored.

For businesses, the security checkpoints on the perimeter of the city are a particular hardship. Fallujah used to be less than an hour's drive from Baghdad. Now, people wait for hours in line, submitting to searches and fingerprinting. Only Fallujah residents and contractors working on reconstruction projects can enter the city.

"Baghdad is the source of the goods we need," said spice dealer Haji Abbas. "I was going and coming from Baghdad almost daily. Now I can't. The checkpoints and the long lines make transportation costs extremely high and this makes my spice prices relatively high ... and Fallujah residents need money to fix their homes. The last thing they need is a shortage of goods and high prices."

Some are happy for a break in the violence, even at the price of their freedom.

"The security is good," said Thaira Thalid Abbas, 58, a mother of nine, as she waited with some 30 others for a compensation check for damage done to her home during the assault. "We go to sleep without worrying about it."

So far, only 40 families have received compensation payments, out of an estimated 25,000 who suffered damages. American officials say the program is being run by the local government, which is still in disarray.

"I think it's going very well," said Deputy Mayor Ali Hussein. "It will be better in the future. This is just the beginning. Maybe after two or three months everything will be okay."

He said the security measures are an inconvenience but are still necessary.

"We don't want it to all start again," he said.

Others are frustrated.

"We can't do business here," said Ali Muhammed Hussein, as he waited with his elderly father to receive a compensation check. "It's the safest city in Iraq because it's a prison."

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(A McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent who can't be named for security reasons contributed to this report.)

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