Fallujah Now a Safe Haven for Sunnis

By STEVEN R. HURST
The Associated Press
Thursday, November 16, 2006; 4:40 PM

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Some 30 Sunni refugees seeking a safe haven from Baghdad sit under the shade of a camouflage net on the outskirts of Fallujah, waiting at a makeshift U.S. facility for city IDs.

A skinny young man with a red and white scarf wound around his head pulls a reporter aside and lifts his right pant leg, exposing a shin with marks where Shiite militiamen had bored into the bone with an electric drill _ the current tool of choice for Baghdad torture specialists.

Security is tight and snipers abound, but Fallujah _ once an extremely violent Sunni insurgent bastion where the charred bodies of four Blackwater security men were hung on a bridge _ has become a refuge from the death squads and mortar battles in Baghdad. U.S. Marines say about 150 Iraqis flee here each week from the capital, 40 miles to the east.

Unlike Baghdad, which houses large numbers of both Muslim sects, Fallujah's population is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. As a result, Fallujah has not experienced the raging sectarian warfare that has the capital teetering on the brink of civil war. The migration is part of a larger exodus out of Baghdad, where entire neighborhoods have been uprooted.

Population figures in Iraq are little more than estimates, but Fallujah was said to have about 450,000 residents before U.S. forces stormed the city in November 2004 to drive out the insurgents. As the assault gained force nearly 400,000 of that number had fled, but the Americans say there are about 300,000 living in the city now.

Two years after the U.S. attack on Fallujah, Marine Col. Lawrence Nicholson takes rightful pride in what he and his men have done since taking over.

Nicholson strides the stony ground here in snappy camouflage fatigues, his dog tag secured under the laces of his left boot. He doesn't slip into his flak jacket but instead assaults the bulletproof vest, wrestles it on, then walks off with the slightly bowlegged gait of a man just off a horse.

"This is the club. Welcome to our country club, our gated community," the 51-year-old Toronto native said with a grin during a tour of the city Wednesday.

But if Fallujah were a hospital patient, it would still be in intensive care. Two city council members and the council president have been assassinated since February. At least 30 police officers were gunned down this summer. The mayor fled in July.

Reconstruction of the city, ruined in the Marine assault, is in progress but far from complete.

There's no bustle on the main street, and not much to bustle to. Unemployment is well above 50 percent. The cement factories are only now struggling back to life.

A reporter who tried to step outdoors during a city council meeting _ part of the tour _ was grabbed by the arm and pulled back inside by Marines who warned of snipers right in the center of the city.


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