Weeks before Marine and Army units stormed into Fallujah, blowing up buildings and blasting holes in insurgent positions, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Larry Merola was already working on a plan to fix the damage.
Merola, an architect from Stoughton, Mass., was part of a Seabee team of engineers, builders and carpenters responsible for estimating the battle damage long before the first tank rolled.
Merola and his crew -- which included an ironworker from Connecticut, an electrician from Virginia and a general contractor from New Hampshire -- pored over combat plans with Marine commanders and made suggestions for how to secure the city without completely tearing it apart.
"A lot of trigger-pullers and pilots, they can do just about anything with their weapons," said Merola, 38, a reservist with the 7th Naval Construction Regiment, based in Newport, R.I. "But you don't want to give people a piece of flat earth to start over with when you're done."
Now, with U.S. and Iraqi security forces pushing their way through Fallujah, military commanders say an essential component in the battle to retake the city is putting it back together when the infantry leaves. More than $90 million in U.S.-funded reconstruction projects are planned for the city once it is secure.
"We don't do a combat operation in Fallujah unless we are prepared to repair it," said Col. John R. Ballard, commander of the Marine 4th Civil Affairs Group, based in Washington. "This isn't about punishing the town. This is about getting rid of a very bad influence. When we do that, there is going to be damage."
The Marine unit, which Ballard called "the secret weapon that fixes what other people break," will spearhead the initial rebuilding effort on behalf of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is responsible for the restive Sunni Triangle region. Marine commanders have $40 million at their disposal to spend in the city, including paying compensation to residents whose property is damaged by either side in the conflict. Families suffering a death, serious injury or property damage can receive a one-time payment of as much as $2,500.
The Army is drawing from the same $40 million pot to pay damage claims. On Tuesday afternoon, a group of soldiers from Bravo Company of the Army's 445th Civil Affairs unit, attached to the Marine Civil Affairs Group, left a base camp near Fallujah and headed into the city on the heels of the advancing infantry units.
The soldiers will spend the next two days meeting with Army commanders and driving around the city assessing the state of water, sewage and garbage disposal systems, and other infrastructure. If the city is secure enough, they also will begin processing damage claims, said Capt. Kamil Sztalkoper, a spokesman for the Army's 1st Infantry Division Task Force 2-2, whose soldiers were among the first into Fallujah on Monday night.
"We came in to eliminate the terrorists and insurgents," said Sztalkoper, 26, of Cleveland. "We want to return the city of Fallujah to the people as quickly as possible. This is obviously one means of showing the people of Fallujah that we are serious about returning what is theirs back to them. Yes, in the process, some things are destroyed, but here we are to help correct what we had to do."
About $50 million worth of reconstruction projects designated for Fallujah have been on hold since April, when the Marines broke off an offensive and insurgents seized control of the city.
In addition, the U.S. Project Contracting Office, which is responsible for spending congressionally approved reconstruction funds for Iraq, has identified four key projects -- worth an additional $50 million -- to start within two months after the city is returned to local government control.
One of those priorities is cleaning up Fallujah's water system, which is contaminated with sewage. The contracting office plans to spend $35 million on a new sewage treatment facility for the city. The other early priorities are $4 million to build four schools, $6.2 million for a new health care facility and clinics, and $2.5 million to improve the electrical grid.
An Iraqi police officer from Fallujah said residents of the city were eager for the reconstruction to begin.
"It's not just a matter of jobs," said the man, who declined to give his name. "Before April, the people inside the town, many people were fighting the Americans. But now the situation is different. They want someone to help them. The schools are not open. No one can go to his job. We want the Marines to come in to help."
Lt. Col. Leonard DeFrancisci, civil affairs officer for Regimental Combat Team 1 of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the Marines have prioritized projects basically by "war-gaming" what needs to be done.
"We try to project critical stuff," he said. "People are going to need to eat. They are going to need medical care."
Merola, the Seabee, said reconstruction planning must go hand-in-hand with combat planning. The more infrastructure that can be retained during an operation, the better, he said.
For example, he said, combat planners might want to destroy a bridge so that insurgents won't be able to use it. Instead, engineers will work with the combat planners to figure out a way to take out part of the bridge, eliminating the expensive necessity of completely rebuilding it.
"You have to remove the enemy, but people in the city are going to go back," he said. "You can't just turn it to sand."