FALLUJAH, Iraq -- A few days before U.S. ground forces invaded her city in early November, Raja Hamdi Hussein locked the gate of Taburak primary school, where she is director of girls, and fled to Baghdad to wait out the assault.
When she returned this month, she looked around the school and cried, Hussein said in her small office, cold from the wind that was blowing in through shattered windows. The white walls were covered with messages that U.S. troops presumably left when they searched the premises for insurgents and weapons.
A Marine patrols a street in Fallujah. The house is marked with an "X" to indicate that U.S. and Iraqi security forces have checked and cleared it for weapons. Family members who returned there after the military operation wrote "There is family" to indicate that civilians were inside.
(Photos Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)
"Fallujah Kill Bodys," one message read. "USA No. 1," said another. And on a wall behind her, next to framed verses from the Koran, the Islamic holy book: "We came. We saw. We took over all. P.S. To help you."
Schoolbooks were strewn about, the doors were broken down and student records were torn and scattered, Hussein said. The scene was almost too much to face, she said, grappling with how to move on with her life amid the rubble of the nearly two-month battle.
Like many residents who have returned to Fallujah, Hussein is not sure how she feels about the military operation that silenced a terrifying insurgency but left the city in ruins and with an occupying force whose armored vehicles roam the streets.
"I cried so much. This is my dear city," she said, clasping her plump fingers, which peeked out of the sleeves of a long black dress. "We were hoping the Americans would bring us a better life than we had."
As the battlefield is gradually transformed into a construction zone, U.S. officials acknowledge that they have a limited amount of time to establish faith among residents eager for life return to normal. If they do not rebuild the city quickly enough, the officials say, they risk losing their already tenuous support, a potentially dangerous situation with insurgents still reported in the city.
"We have a matter of weeks to get this right," said Col. John R. Ballard, commander of the Marine 4th Civil Affairs Group, based in Washington.
Much of Fallujah was destroyed by artillery rounds, gunfire and bombs, as U.S. forces battled insurgents who held the city for seven months. Most residents fled in advance of the operation, and those who returned expressed dismay at the destruction.
The Marines have paid $200 in reparations to each of about 3,200 families, an initial payout to help residents returning to the city, Ballard said. The Iraqi government is in charge of assessing damage to homes and businesses and awarding compensation, but Ballard said those payments had not yet been handed out.
"They've got a process designed," he said in an interview at the Marine civil affairs operations center in downtown Fallujah. "They have money, but it has not gone as quickly. We had a group of people in here the other day, and I asked people to raise their hands if anybody had been paid. Nobody had."
U.S. forces are working with local contractors and the Iraqi government to restore electricity and services. In the two months since residents were allowed back in the city, U.S. and Iraqi officials have reopened 10 schools, three medical clinics and two hospitals.
"We are seeing the population starting to rebuild itself," Ballard said. "In the last two to three weeks, bakeries, barbershops, markets have opened back up."
On some heavily damaged streets, traders have propped up their wares against piles of rock and debris, selling bicycles, bricks, brooms and cigarettes against the curtain of war. On Monday, Fallujah experienced its first traffic jam since the offensive. And in another sign of returning normality, Iraqis waited in miles-long lines for fuel, just like in any other city in this country.