FALLUJAH, Iraq -- On a sweep through southern Fallujah, U.S. Marines uncovered a suspected insurgent safe house: four Iraqi men of military age living alone in a small, unkempt dwelling with a Russian heavy machine gun, ammunition and two grenades buried in the front yard.
The Marines were handcuffing and blindfolding the men when a middle-aged woman, cloaked in a black abaya, rushed to the front door: "My son is innocent!" she pleaded. "He is working here digging for the water pipes."
A woman in Fallujah pleads with troops for the release of her son, who she and an Iraqi construction engineer said was working on a sewerage project.
(Photos Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
Outside the house, a churned-up strip of earth ran down the center of the road. An Iraqi construction engineer confirmed that the four men were among the 78 workers he had hired as part of a $28 million project to build a new sewerage system in Fallujah. Still, the Marines detained the four for questioning.
"Of course, this will stop our work," said Sattar Saed, the engineer managing the project, explaining that the four men all drove heavy equipment. "If they spend a week in jail, that's a long time."
In last November's U.S.-led offensive in Fallujah, dozens of U.S. troops, hundreds of insurgents and an unknown number of civilians were killed. Now, curfews, checkpoints and other stringent security measures are being used to prevent the city from falling back into insurgent hands. But enhancing security is hampering efforts to rebuild. Checkpoints choke the influx of supplies and business, ultimately slowing the creation of jobs needed to give young people an alternative to joining the insurgency for money.
"If you don't have enough people flowing in to sustain commerce, you will stunt growth," said Capt. Rudy Quiles, a Marine civil affairs officer here. Letting more people and goods into Fallujah "is a risk we're going to have to take at some point for the good of the city." He estimated that 85 percent of people in Fallujah were unemployed or underemployed.
Col. Charles M. Gurganus, commander of the 8th Marine Regiment, which oversees the region that includes Fallujah, said the security measures have ensured that "Fallujah probably is the safest place in al-Anbar province. . . . We keep a pretty tight clampdown on this place."
Many people here say they do feel safer, but resent the restrictions on their daily lives. Personal weapons are banned throughout the city. A 7 p.m. curfew keeps residents off the streets but also away from mosques for evening prayers. At night, a military escort is needed to obtain emergency medical care.
Gabshe Hamed, a mother with a large family, sat barefoot in her parlor recently, fingering worry beads. "Before, we were afraid of the Air Force planes and praying before we slept each night. Now we feel safer, but we suffer from the curfew because we can't go to the hospital." This is of particular concern to Hamed, who has a heart condition.
U.S. and Iraqi troops oversee four checkpoints on major roads, allowing in only documented residents, contractors, government officials or allied military forces. Residents describe delays at the checkpoints of four hours or more, although Marine officials say the average wait is far shorter. The troops pull aside men of military age for an iris scan and thumbprint, building a computer database of potential insurgents.
"We have to be very careful how we repopulate the city. We paid too high a price to hand it back," said Maj. Phillip Zeman of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, a unit that patrols the southern half of Fallujah.
With white flags still poking from doorways and the words "Here Family" spray-painted on walls to alert U.S. forces, Fallujah's landscape is cluttered with debris from a bombardment last November that made the 2003 invasion here seem mild.
Nearly all of the city's estimated 250,000 residents fled before the fighting started, and about 90,000 have returned to find wide swaths of the town in ruin. More than half of Fallujah's 39,000 homes were damaged, and about 10,000 of those were destroyed or left structurally unsound to live in, U.S. officials say. Limited food and fuel supplies mean higher prices and lines that can reach 100 cars at government gas stations.
More than half of Fallujah has no electricity, which is needed to pump water. The bombing caused hundreds of leaks in the city water system and about 60 percent of households must rely on water stored in tanks.
Wearing a white tunic called a dishdasha, sunglasses and headdress, Hamid Taha, a district leader, brushed his hands together when asked about local electricity. "There is no power in our area," he said. Running water is available about three or four hours a day. About half of the 5,000 houses in his district are damaged. But Taha said he worried most about the lack of work.
"Most people in Fallujah now can't get any job. This is our biggest problem. Some people sell their furniture or TV to get money. They also borrow money from rich families," said Taha, who relies on a $140 monthly retirement check from the Defense Ministry.
Others are surviving so far on one-time payments -- $100 from the Iraqi government and $200 from the United States. Homeowners can also receive 20 percent of the value of damaged houses, with an estimated 32,000 homeowners eligible, said Marine Lt. Col. William Brown of the 5th Civil Affairs Group. Yet for some, those payments are already running out.
Fasil Ali, an unemployed tractor driver, has been living for two months with his wife and nine children in a tent near the brick rubble of their demolished home. "Most of that money is gone, so I'm borrowing from relatives now," he said as his wife held a naked toddler nearby. "There is no work."
"What did we do to have to live like this?" said Ali Hussein, a neighbor whose home was also destroyed.
In an effort to generate work, Iraqi officials have identified 65 projects for Fallujah worth $100 million, including a $30 million electricity distribution system, $7 million in water system upgrades and the sewerage project. New schools, police stations, clinics and water treatment plants are underway.
Still, rebuilding is progressing slowly, not only because of security controls but also because Fallujah lacks an established government "to make the appropriate decisions," said Maj. James Orbock, an Army civil affairs official.
On March 30, a transitional "Fallujah working group" chose a 21-person temporary city council, but the city still lacks an official mayor.
"That's the conundrum of Iraq: Which Iraqi leaders are going to do the most good for the most people?" said Lt. Col. Andrew Kennedy, who commands the 3rd Battalion. Of the new council, he said, "We're a little concerned about the affiliations" of some members.
Meanwhile, insurgents have not given up on Fallujah. "Even though the mujaheddin lost this battle, they will come back," declared one sign. Others urged "defeat the Americans" and said, "Long live the mujaheddin."
"They are in there, they are operating, but they're still limited in what they can do," said Zeman, noting that a handful of roadside bombs and a car laden with explosives had been discovered in the city this month.
There is a feeling of deja vu about rebuilding Fallujah a second time, combined with questions from local residents and U.S. commanders alike about why it is necessary. "If only we had had the resources, the civil affairs, back when we were here in May 2003. We were asking, but we didn't get them," Kennedy said.
Zeman agreed: "Nobody's happy the way Fallujah got solved."