FALLUJAH, Iraq — The Iraqi government on Saturday allowed a trickle of civilians back into the western city of Fallujah, where they will begin the daunting task of rebuilding their lives in a city ragged from conflict and lacking even the most basic services.
Three months after the city was recaptured from Islamic State militants, a convoy of seven families returned in the early hours of the afternoon after being checked against databases. Returnees were vastly outnumbered by local officials, journalists and security forces.
The few who did make it in came home to an empty city. Once home to more than 250,000 people, the population shrank to nothing in waves of displacement over the past 2½ years. Many fled as the Islamic State took over the city in January 2014. Those who stayed were later uprooted in the battle to retake the city in June.
They became some of the 3.3 million people who have been displaced in Iraq since the conflict with the Islamic State began. With over a million more expected to be displaced in the pending battle for the Islamic State-
controlled city of Mosul, the Iraqi government is attempting to repopulate cities such as Fallujah as fast as it can.
But it is a task fraught with sensitivities. Security officials say they fear that militants may sneak back in with returning families. In addition, the conflict has split tribes and communities and has deepened sectarian divisions.
Local officials said that the limited numbers returning were because of organizational issues and that the process would speed up. Two buses were provided for returning families on Saturday, but one traveled through the town empty.
Eissa al-Eissawi, the head of Fallujah’s local council, said that 17 families had been allowed back to Fallujah by the end of the day on Saturday — though three of those were later ejected after family members were flagged to have links to the Islamic State.
Most of those who were allowed to return Saturday appeared to be among those who had fled as soon as the Islamic State entered Fallujah. They used an Internet form to sign up to return — difficult to access for thousands of families who fled more recently and are stuck in harsh conditions in desert camps.
Some of the handful who returned found that their houses had been lived in by strangers; others found little changed other than layers of dust. Some found their homes destroyed.
After entering his house for the first time in more than 2½ years, Shakeeb Abdulmohsen, 45, picked up a picture of two toddlers resting on a side table in his sitting room.
“This doesn’t belong to me,” he said.
His wife, Shafa Nouri, pointed to a baby stroller in the hall. “This isn’t ours,” she said. Some families trapped in Fallujah under Islamic State rule moved into empty houses to escape heavy shelling and airstrikes in some neighborhoods.
“I’m shocked that there’s some strange stuff here; there’s a new air cooler, this picture, maybe there’s a bomb, I don’t know,” her husband said.
A total of 12,405 improvised explosive devices have been defused or detonated in Fallujah and the surrounding towns of Garma and Saqlawiyah since the areas were retaken, said Maj. Gen. Saad Harbiya, head of military operations in western Baghdad. Some 38 bomb-making factories have been discovered.
He said that the area has been secured “100 percent,” though there were tunnels and a risk that militants may still be hiding out in some areas.
“We killed one this morning,” he added, explaining that his men had found a man unarmed hiding in the city’s industrial area. “It was the last area we were clearing, and we found him in a dark room.”
He said that even though the man did not have a weapon, he was suspected of being an Islamic State militant and so had been shot.
The army and police appeared to be the only security forces on the ground, with Shiite militia forces expelled earlier after setting fire to houses after the city was retaken. Many of them view the residents of the Sunni majority city, the first to fall to the Islamic State, with deep suspicion.
Since retaking the city, security forces have dug a trench on its outskirts, and residents will be allowed in and out through a single checkpoint. Families cleared to return will be given a pass that will allow them to travel to Baghdad.
“It’s not as some people are saying, that we are trying to keep them in,” said Sgt. Ahmed Najid, who was assisting with the return of families.
When they left three years ago, Nouri and her family did not expect to be gone so long. In her old home in the Hayy al-Askeri neighborhood of Fallujah, her 6-year-old son clung to her leg. “Do you remember riding your bike here?” his mother asked. “You remember?” He shook his head.