FALLUJAH, Iraq—When gunmen hid a bomb in front of his house a few days ago, intending to use it against U.S. or Iraqi troops, Majeed al-Rawi had only one option: Move out.
"If I report it to the Americans, I will be killed by the men who put it there, and if I don't, my family will be killed either by the explosion or the Americans," the car dealer said. "This is not a way to live; this is a way to hate life."
Two years after American troops launched a devastating ground assault aimed at purging the heart of the Iraqi insurgency, Fallujah once again is a violent place.
In recent months, insurgents have filtered back into the city, despite tight controls that limit access to only six checkpoints. Residents must submit to an extraordinary identification system that includes fingerprinting, retina scans and bar-coded identification cards.
An insurgent intimidation campaign has killed two city council members and at least 30 police officers. The campaign has been so effective that police patrols have all but stopped, as officers fear to walk the streets.
The number of gunfire attacks, bombings and bombs found and defused has doubled since last winter, to about four or five a day, U.S. officers say. There have been about half a dozen car bombs in recent weeks.
Residents and police alike complain bitterly that after two years security is eroding in what had been touted as an American success story.
"Bush didn't give us democracy; he gave us more new ways to be killed," said al-Rawi, whose complaints were first overheard in a shop by a McClatchy reporter and repeated later in an interview. "I think there is no future anymore. I believe the only future is to leave this country."
"We can win the war, but for now al-Qaida has won in Fallujah," said a police officer who didn't want his name used for security reasons. "They made the police force stop patrolling streets, and that's a victory."
Because insurgents target them at home, many officers are living in the police stations. Others simply quit.
"What was I going to wait for that would keep me on the force?" said Mohammed Humadi, a police captain who quit in August after one of his commanders was killed and beheaded. "Nothing was going to get any better. I have children, and if I were to sacrifice myself, it wouldn't change anything."
With more and more Americans expressing support for pursuing a new policy in Iraq, Fallujah offers a lesson in frustration.
Almost from the beginning of the U.S. presence in Iraq, Fallujah had been a center for opposition, with the first anti-American demonstration coming just days after U.S. forces toppled a statute of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
The city's reputation as the heart of the insurgency was cemented on March 31, 2004, when insurgents killed four American security contractors, hanging their mutilated and burned bodies from the spans of one of the city's main bridges. A Marine assault was halted after Iraqi government complaints about civilian casualties, and the city became a lawless haven for insurgents and terrorists from the group al-Qaida in Iraq.
On Nov. 8, 2004, U.S. forces began a street-by-street assault to take back Fallujah. It lasted two weeks and leveled much of the city.
Since then, American forces have gone to great lengths to keep Fallujah peaceful, cutting available entrances to six. Only residents are allowed in the city, and they must show special ID cards and undergo rigorous identity checks before entering.
Until this August, Fallujah was a relatively peaceful place, at least by Iraqi standards. But then U.S. forces stepped up a campaign against insurgents in nearby Ramadi and added troops in Baghdad in an effort to quell growing violence there. Some military officers here think that pushed insurgent fighters to Fallujah, and that they made it into the city along a dozen clandestine pathways hidden from U.S. and Iraqi army scrutiny.
By mid-August, insurgent threats against and assassinations of police officers got so bad that half the police force stayed home for several days. Many quit or moved into their stations.
American and Iraqi troops have nowhere near the manpower needed to take up the slack, said Lt. Col. James Teeples, the senior U.S. adviser to the Iraqi army unit that's responsible for much of the city.
Teeples said that a basic rule of thumb for fighting insurgencies was 20 security-force members for every 1,000 residents. With Fallujah's population estimated at 250,000 to 300,000, that would be 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers and police officers.
Iraqi troops number about 1,200 and Iraqi police just 1,500, with some estimates as low as 700 because of recent resignations. And only a few hundred American troops are available for security duty.
"We just don't have the manpower to maintain surveillance on the entire city," Teeples said.
Other factors contribute to the insecurity. Fallujah is nearly entirely Sunni Muslim, and so is its police force. But Shiite Muslims dominate the army, which doesn't trust the police force and thinks that insurgents have infiltrated it.
Many residents sympathize with the insurgents. At a clinic last week, word passed down a line of women who were waiting to see the doctor that a sniper had killed an American soldier.
"I wish I'd shot him," one woman said, to the obvious approval of some of the others.
The security problems seep into every part of life in Fallujah. Working with the U.S.-backed local government is so risky that the United States built a center outside the city where merchants and contractors can cut their deals without fear of being attacked.
Businesses can't keep regular hours because of frequent armed clashes, and those that depend on suppliers in Baghdad for merchandise aren't able to get there because of the Shiite death squads that control the highways.
One businessman, Nassir al-Kubaisi, 38, who owns a distribution company that supplies appliances and hardware to about 40 Fallujah shops, said recently that gangs had stolen several thousand dollars that he was sending to suppliers in Baghdad.
American commanders here say they remain optimistic. Lt. Col. Jay M. Bargeron, the second in command of the U.S. Marine regiment that works in and around Fallujah, noted, for example, that Iraqis have stepped forward to replace the city council members killed by insurgents and construction is evident on nearly every street as residents work to rebuild destruction from the November 2004 American assault.
"We call it the building boom," Bargeron said.
Still, the outlook is bleak for police officers, as they recount the murder of the deputy police chief, the resignation of the police chief and the threats against and killings of other officers.
"The future is vague, and I believe the war we are fighting is one of a kind and no one knows what the results might be," one officer said.
Americans see little hope if they pull out, however.
"In a lot of ways, Fallujah is a success story," said Marine Maj. Brian Wirtz, a senior U.S. adviser here.
"But it's also a little like having your finger in the dike," he said. "As long as the finger is in the dike, things will continue. But it's hard to say what will happen when we leave."
March 19—U.S. and coalition partners invade Iraq.
April 9—American soldiers and Iraqi civilians topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
April 29—At least 16 Iraqis are killed in Fallujah when U.S. soldiers open fire on protesters.
June 30—Fallujah residents blame American forces for an explosion near the al-Hassan mosque that killed the mosque's imam; U.S. denies responsibility.
Dec. 13—Insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades at American soldiers during a protest march. At least three Iraqis die in the ensuing fight.
March 31—Insurgents capture and kill four U.S. security contractors, hanging their burned and mutilated bodies from a bridge.
April 5-9—Hundreds of American Marines fight insurgents and seal off the city.
April 9—U.S. declares cease-fire to reopen hospital. Estimated 600 Iraqis are dead. Insurgents continue attacks. American troops and Iraqi army commence joint patrols.
April 30—U.S. starts withdrawing its forces from around Fallujah.
May 10—American forces, along with an Iraqi brigade, enter the city.
June-October—U.S. bombs Fallujah, taking out insurgent "safe houses" allegedly run by followers of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. On July 5, U.S. uses four 500-pound bombs on one building.
Oct. 13—City council rejects a call from Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi for it to expel insurgents. Roughly half the city's residents have fled.
Nov. 8—American forces begin assault to retake Fallujah from the insurgents, the largest U.S. action in Iraq since the invasion itself.
Dec. 29—Civilians who had fled Fallujah start returning.
June 2—Marines discover air-conditioned underground bunkers near Fallujah well stocked by insurgents with missiles, AK-47 rounds and plastic explosives, only 16 miles from a major American base.
May 3—A suicide bomber kills 16 recruits outside a police station.
August—Insurgents begin an intimidation campaign against Fallujah police officers.
Nov. 3—U.S. and Iraqi authorities detain three members of the mayor's security detail, alleging involvement with insurgents.
Sources: Facts on File, The Miami Herald
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.