In July 2003, when travel around Iraq didn't require armored cars and armed guards, my translator and I took a day trip to Fallujah. Unrest was on the rise there and we were curious about who was behind the violence. Was it indeed former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party? We wanted to get some truth on the ground. Even if the reporting foray was a bust, we planned to stuff ourselves at Haji Hussein, our favorite kebab restaurant.

At the mayor's office and the police station, my translator, Naseer, tried to find someone who would speak with candor. "They're all liars," he declared after a few interviews. Then, as we were about to give up, a mayoral aide told us to look up the city's senior tribal chief, Sheik Khamis Hassnawi. "He'll tell you what's really happening," the aide whispered.

In a city where residents often began conversations with diatribes against the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, Hassnawi was a refreshing exception. Although he appeared to come from central casting, with his prominent nose, weathered face and checkered headscarf, he talked for much of the afternoon -- over Dunhill cigarettes and takeout from Haji Hussein -- about how Fallujah could be saved with the help of the U.S. military. The Americans, he said, needed to find a way to employ the legions of former soldiers and other disaffected young men milling about the city. Unlike Shiites in the south, who had grown accustomed to unemployment and poverty, Sunnis in Fallujah had thrived on government contracts, smuggling and graft. Postwar joblessness was a new, embarrassing -- and dangerous -- phenomenon. "Either you put them to work," Hassnawi said, "or they will turn to the resistance."

Late last month, as I was packing my possessions and preparing to return to Washington after 18 months as The Post's bureau chief in Baghdad, Naseer came to my hotel room and tried to call Hassnawi so that I could say goodbye. As Naseer kept redialing, it became clear how much my life as a journalist in Iraq had changed over those months, and how much things had changed for Iraqis. The telephone had become the only way for me to contact Hassnawi, who was holed up at home, too afraid to venture out. Like Hassnawi, I too had become a prisoner in my home -- the inhospitable Ishtar Sheraton Hotel -- unable to roam a country I had grown to love, forced to call people I once used to visit.

My folding road map, dog-eared from repeated excursions last year, had grown dusty on my bookshelf. By this summer, every road leading out of Baghdad had become too dangerous to travel. North to Mosul, west to Ramadi, northeast to Baqubah, southeast to Kut, south to Hilla, Karbala, Najaf and Basra -- all had turned into "red routes" in the parlance of security specialists, meaning too dangerous to travel. The capital itself was a patchwork of red (no-go) and yellow (proceed with extreme caution) zones, surrounding the American-controlled Green Zone. Neighborhoods where I had visited Iraqi friends for lunch were now too insecure to enter. And even if I was willing to chance it, my Iraqi friends didn't want to risk being seen allowing a foreigner into their house.

It had not started out this way, and perhaps it did not need to have turned out this way. To understand this better, it helps to know a bit more about Hassnawi.

Lured by his willingness to speak freely, I periodically dropped in on the sheik after our first meeting to get his take on the deteriorating security situation in Fallujah. He knew the ringleaders and their lieutenants. He was among the first to warn of the arrival of foreign fighters. He represented the city council in early talks with the U.S. military. But in our discussions, he always returned to the same point: Commence reconstruction projects and create jobs. To his dismay, many of his unemployed tribesmen were joining the insurgency, lured by $500 payments to participate in attacks.

Over time, it became increasingly dangerous to meet with Hassnawi. Early this year, insurgents and their sympathizers began threatening reporters and chasing them out of town. When Naseer and I went to see the sheik in March at his farmhouse south of the city, a second vehicle accompanying us served as a scout, ready to alert us with a walkie-talkie of any problems ahead.

Two weeks later, four American security contractors were murdered and mutilated in front of Haji Hussein. From that moment on, Fallujah became a no-go area for us, the first in what has turned into a lengthy list of places in Iraq where it is too dangerous to operate as a foreign journalist.

A few days after the grisly murders, U.S. Marines laid siege to Fallujah. The long-simmering guerrilla war erupted into an all-out, us-vs.-them conflict, with most young men fighting along with the hard-core insurgents to defend their city. Hassnawi and others who had advocated engagement with the Americans either fled or hid in their homes.

The Marines eventually pulled out and handed over security responsibilities to a group of former Iraqi soldiers who were cowed and co-opted by resistance leaders. With the city still in the hands of insurgents, Hassnawi has received multiple death threats, some of which have been delivered by his own tribesmen. Although he would like to meet with Marine commanders, and they also want to see him, it's been impossible to arrange. He can't risk being seen traveling out of town toward the Marine base. The Marines can't drive up to his house.

As a Sunni Muslim, he had every reason to oppose the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. He had never been tortured. None of his relatives wound up in mass graves. He had received regular payouts from Hussein's government, enough to buy a shiny new Mercedes. Even during my visits, I sometimes wondered whether he was telling us Americans what we wanted to hear, and what might pay off for him in the new Iraq.

But Hassnawi insisted that democracy was in the best interests of his country, even if it meant that Sunnis would have to cede control to Iraq's Shiite majority. He reasoned that a new government, with the help of the United States, could restore the prosperity that Iraq had enjoyed decades ago, when it was the envy of its neighbors. Of course, he wanted a share of that wealth, of the reconstruction contracts and trade deals that he hoped would materialize.

He was pained to see Fallujah wracked by violence. A dusty, charmless place, it is nevertheless a bustling way station on the road to Jordan and, apart from Baghdad, the largest city in the Sunni triangle. During our many conversations, he maintained that much of the unrest in the city could have been prevented had the U.S. military and the occupation authority devoted more attention and resources to Fallujah last year.

For months, the city was an afterthought. There was no full-time presence of U.S. troops until nearly three weeks after Hussein's government was toppled. By the time commanders in Baghdad realized that they needed to send more units there, Baathist leaders already had begun organizing themselves into insurgent cells that would later be aided by extremist religious clerics and fighters from outside Iraq.

What would have occurred if the U.S. occupation authority, the vast bureaucracy that was supposed to administer postwar Iraq, had heeded Hassnawi's advice? Could Fallujah have avoided becoming a cauldron of violence?

As with so much else in Iraq, we'll never know for sure. I suspect that had there been an infusion of reconstruction funds in those early days, creating jobs and giving people some hope in the future, many young men would have opted not to side with the insurgents. But no such funds existed. Military commanders had only a modest budget to pay for small public works projects. It was not until this spring that the occupation authority began doling out large-scale contracts. By then, however, Fallujah was deemed too volatile for reconstruction work.

Back when I first met Hassnawi, his warning about the dangers of unemployed Sunnis had seemed insightful and foreboding. Now it seemed so obvious as to be banal. But it was also a reminder of the myriad opportunities the United States has missed during its occupation of Iraq.

The missteps began with U.S. forces doing little to stop the looting of government buildings and, more importantly, of vast ammunition depots. I'll never forget the sight of a bedraggled man hauling away porcelain bathroom fixtures on his donkey cart as I drove toward Baghdad on April 10, 2003, the day after Saddam Hussein's government was toppled. With even the plumbing up for grabs, it was clear that the U.S. military was thoroughly unprepared for the chaos and instability that had been unleashed.

Later, the U.S. occupation continued to fumble choices. U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army and barred many members of Hussein's Baath Party from government jobs, putting more than 300,000 people out of work. Many of them later joined the resistance. Then there was Bremer's initial refusal to allow the formation of an interim government, instead antagonizing the most pro-American Iraqi leaders by relegating them to an advisory council. He failed to reach out quickly to the country's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He hired staffers based on Republican Party connections rather than development experience, hindering the occupation authority's ability to fulfill its mission. And meanwhile the Bush administration waited months to ask Congress for the necessary billions for reconstruction and several more months to issue the first contracts.

Hassnawi still sees some signs of hope, no thanks to American perspicacity. Fallujah residents have grown increasingly weary of the presence of foreign fighters, particularly followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant currently regarded by the U.S. military as the preeminent terrorist ringleader in Iraq. Although the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, recently threatened military action against Fallujah unless the city hands over Zarqawi and his group, Hassnawi believes residents cannot do it alone. Although U.S. warplanes have pounded the city for weeks, Hassnawi contends that the only way to defeat the insurgents is for soldiers from Iraq's new army to enter the city, backed up by U.S. forces. He also warns that U.S. troops should not repeat their mistake in April by going it alone. Fallujans, he said, "will accept Iraqi soldiers on their streets, but not the American Marines."

What worries him most is that Allawi and U.S. commanders will miss the next opportunity -- as surely as they've missed so many chances before -- to establish some semblance of order in Fallujah. Despite almost daily airstrikes, the sheik fears the Iraqi and U.S. leaders will back off yet again from their seeming resolve to expel militants from the city before national elections scheduled for January. Unless that expulsion happens, he maintained, the Sunnis will be disenfranchised by the new political system. Fallujah is already under-represented in the Anbar provincial council. Representatives from the city did not participate in a four-day convention in August to select a 100-member national council. An inability to vote in January, he said, will in turn breed enmity among even the Fallujans who support Iraq's democratic transition.

As we ended our conversation, Hassnawi was despondent. To console him, I said I'd be back one day and that we'd share another lunch of Haji Hussein kebabs.

But on Tuesday morning, I got an e-mail from Naseer informing me that U.S. warplanes had bombed the restaurant. Insurgents had apparently holed up in there overnight.

"There is no kebab anymore," Naseer wrote.

Author's e-mail: rajiv@washpost.com

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a member of The Post's foreign staff, has spent most of the past two years in Baghdad.

A tangled situation: A U.S. soldier struggles with security wire as the U.S. Marines break down camp defenses in Fallujah in April, ending a four-week siege there. Lost opportunities? Fallujah's Sheik Khamis Hassnawi has freely given advice to the Americans in Iraq. Would things have turned out better if U.S. officials listened more carefully to people like him?