Increased Security In Fallujah Slows Efforts to Rebuild

A woman in Fallujah pleads for the release of her son. She said he was working on a sewerage project; a construction worker backed up her story.
A woman in Fallujah pleads for the release of her son. She said he was working on a sewerage project; a construction worker backed up her story. (Photos By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2005

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."

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.

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