FALLUJAH, Iraq, April 13 -- Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick paid a surprise visit Wednesday to this former insurgent stronghold to view the pace of reconstruction and meet with local officials. He was greeted with an earful of complaints.
Zoellick is the most senior U.S. official to venture inside the city since it was retaken by U.S. and Iraqi forces in November, and his trip appeared intended to demonstrate that normality was returning to what was once a symbol of the Sunni Muslim resistance.
Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, left, and Iraq's incoming prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari speak to reporters after meeting in Baghdad.
(Pool Photo Ali Haider -- AP)
Yet Zoellick, who wore body armor under his suit jacket, was told by military commanders that he could not leave his armored Humvee because of security concerns during the lightning tour of the shattered downtown. His heavily armored motorcade briefly paused so that he and others could gaze at a revived water treatment plant -- within view of the bridge over the Euphrates River where the charred bodies of American civilian contractors were hung after they were ambushed a year ago. The motorcade then moved so quickly past an open-air bakery reopened with a U.S.-provided micro-loan that workers tossing dough could be glanced only in the blink of an eye.
Cafes and stores were open in the central area, but blasted husks of buildings still line block after block of large sections of the city. Children playing in the rubble waved as the motorcade roared past uprooted palm trees, burned-out vehicles, pools of brackish water and piles of garbage. Patrols moved carefully down streets looking for hidden explosive devices.
A one-hour session with the city's recently elected leaders was held downtown in a heavily guarded Marine enclave, in a sweltering room with windows covered with sandbags. At first, Zoellick heard words of praise for the U.S. intervention. But as he prodded the officials to air their concerns, a torrent of complaints poured out, focusing on such issues as the slow pace of reconstruction aid, frequent intimidation of citizens by American soldiers and the inability to buy fresh produce because of military checkpoints.
State Department fact sheets on Fallujah say that 95 percent of its residents have water available in their homes and that $40 million is being spent to overhaul water plants. But when Zoellick asked Khlaid Jumaly, chairman of the city council, if most people have safe drinking water, the answer suggested they did not.
"The drinking water is not really safe for health," Jumaly, who had a long salt-and-pepper beard and wore a white turban, replied though an interpreter. "The whole sewer system is in very bad shape."
Zoellick said he had just seen the rebuilt water treatment plant and wondered whether that would ease the problem. Jumaly said the repairs were insufficient and even damaging. "The people who are working on the sewer are not very clear about what they are doing," he said.
At one point, the council vice chairman, Ibrahim Mohammed Jassam, implored: "We ask of you, please, that you get involved in the situation of the Fallujah people. You guys did this with your own blood, risked your life, for this situation."
Zoellick acknowledged later that some of the images in Fallujah were troubling. "When you travel the country, you look at the rubble and you look at the devastation, you know there is a long way to go," he told reporters traveling with him. "And when you are putting on vests for security, you know that there is still danger out there."
But Zoellick said he enjoyed the give-and-take with Fallujah leaders: "To me that was a sign that democracy was at work. I got a sense of their overall spirit, that they were trying to make something of it."
Zoellick was the second senior U.S. official to make an unannounced visit to Iraq in as many days. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was in Baghdad on Tuesday to meet with Iraq's new leaders, and Zoellick flew to the Iraqi capital after his trip to Fallujah for meetings with top Iraqi politicians, including President Jalal Talabani and the incoming prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has not yet come to Iraq, in part because top spots in the country's transitional government have only recently been filled.
Zoellick and his entourage arrived in Baghdad early Wednesday and then boarded two Black Hawk helicopters for Fallujah, skimming the tops of palm trees and electrical wires to thwart possible snipers or surface-to-air missiles. Then the officials moved into eight armored vehicles, mostly Humvees, for the tour of the city.
His unannounced visit to Iraq came during a week when he was focusing on the conflicts in Sudan. Zoellick told reporters that he was making the trip because the recent naming of an Iraqi government had signaled "a process of political transition, the formation of Iraqi democracy."
A State Department team led by Richard H. Jones, the senior coordinator for Iraq, came recently and submitted recommendations on how to adjust U.S. policy. Zoellick has been given responsibility for shepherding the approval of those recommendations by President Bush's senior advisers, though several officials said the proposals did not represent any major shift in direction.
One focus of the policy review is whether to revise the priorities in the allocation of more than $18 billion earmarked for Iraqi reconstruction. Zoellick said the administration also wanted to draw its European allies and the Japanese more deeply into the reconstruction efforts.
"What I hope to do in coming weeks," Zoellick said, is "try to lay the groundwork for some more in-depth cooperation, particularly with our European partners, on the reconstruction and economic support side." He said that once the Americans get a feel for the top four or five reconstruction priorities, the administration will work to coordinate with the Europeans and the Japanese so "we can kind of share the load here."