Repairing the battleground Angry Fallujans pose a challenge to

Sunday, December 5, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- According to Iraq's government, people like Ismail Ibrahim should be glad Fallujah is all but rid of the insurgents accused of turning the city into a terrorist base and using its civilians as human shields.

But in a Baghdad school where Ibrahim and about 200 displaced Fallujans have been living since the latest fighting drove them out, the talk is of vendetta -- not against the insurgents but against the Americans and the Iraqi government.

"I feel hatred. I hurt. This is my city and it has been destroyed," Ibrahim said, sitting on a thin mattress on the floor of a room he shares with his wife, seven children and another family.

"The people of Fallujah are people of revenge. If they don't get their revenge now, they will next year or even after 50 years. But they will get it."

It probably is too early to tell whether this is simply bravado or whether people returning to Fallujah will retaliate against American and Iraqi forces. Without expressing sympathy for the Americans or the government, there are Fallujans who take a different view in private, saying they blame the insurgents for turning their city into a battleground.

If the government can capitalize on that latter sentiment, rebuild Fallujah quickly and compensate the civilian victims, the anger may be assuaged, some Fallujans say.

And if the election scheduled for Jan. 30 is perceived as fair it might boost the Iraqi government's credibility, some experts say, adding that politicians need to reach out to the largely Sunni Arab people of Fallujah and assure them they will not be marginalized in a Shiite and Kurdish-dominated Iraq.

"We will work to include them in the political process and in the elections," Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said of the Fallujans. "God willing, gradually ... tempers will cool."

But conversations with men such as Ibrahim show that U.S. and Iraqi authorities probably will have a tough time winning over the city's 300,000 people.

"The Americans just don't get it," Ibrahim said. "They think that they can use their muscles to subdue the resistance. On the contrary, it will increase."

U.S. and Iraqi authorities have set aside $178 million for immediate repairs and refurbishing Fallujah's electrical grid and water-treatment facility. Another $1.2 billion in long-stalled funds is earmarked for Anbar province, which includes Fallujah.

But will it help?

"I think the Americans have incurred a long-term feud with all the major clans of Fallujah," said Juan Cole, an Iraq expert from the University of Michigan. "I do not believe the Americans will ever have the 'hearts and minds' of the people in Anbar. At most, they could crush them militarily."

Support for Saddam Hussein used to run high in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. Many in the Baghdad camp speak of long-entrenched mistrust of the government and the Americans who, they say, fail to understand the tribal-minded, deeply religious and conservative nature of this "city of mosques."

"The Americans want to break the back of Fallujah and are after Islam because Fallujah is a symbol of Islam," said Matloob Abbas, another Fallujan living in the school.

Many Fallujans trace their animosity to a night in April 2003, soon after Saddam was toppled, when U.S. troops fired into a demonstration, killing more than a dozen people. The Americans say they fired in self-defense. Some residents insist it was a peaceful demonstration against the Americans' night-vision goggles, believing they enabled the troops to peek into homes and look at women.

Allawi told the Iraqi interim National Council this week that some of the more than 250,000 people believed displaced by the fighting are living in "unhealthy" conditions, and the government is sending aid every day. He said Fallujah had to be cleared of explosives, services had to be restored and security forces had to be deployed.

No date has been set for the displaced people's return, though an Iraqi Defense Ministry official, Broska Noory Shausse, said Friday that Fallujans might be home by Dec. 31.

U.S. Lt. Col. Dan Wilson of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said he expected insurgents to try to regain influence in the city and "establish psychological dominance" over returning civilians.

As much as they want to return to Fallujah, some Fallujans dread it.

"If you leave your home and come back to find out that it has been destroyed and your bed burnt, will you be able to like the government?" said Maher Karim, a displaced Fallujan.

Karim speaks fondly of the insurgents, many of whom are Fallujans themselves, saying they were defending the city against non-Muslim troops.

Matloob added: "We will teach our children to be fedayeen [warriors] so they can sacrifice their lives for Islam if elections bring us another Allawi."

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