Progress in Fallujah, Iraq

A year ago Shura Chamal-Eit (Elizabeth Street) in downtown Fallujah was a lethal place for American troops attempting to tame the city, a center of lawlessness and defiance by insurgents. Terrorists from Al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups attacked Coalition troops on the street and around the city, killing some and injuring many. But as U.S. Marines here pass yet another Christmas fighting a war few expected to last this long, Fallujah is on the verge of becoming a success story and symbol of a new, cooperative paradigm for winning Iraq. 

Fed up with the wanton assassinations and summary executions by Al Qaeda in Iraq and alarmed that the group was strangling Fallujah's economy, city leaders and residents joined forces with the Marines to expel the group. Many Fallujah residents once offered help to insurgents or at best looked the other way when they fired rocket-propelled grenades, mortar and artillery at Marines and killed or maimed them with the dreaded improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that became commonplace. The same residents now identify insurgents to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi police force, who kill, capture or drive them from the city. Many of the terrorists have fled into the desert, often into Tharthar, an area also in Anbar province, north of Fallujah.

Marines who once passed their days trying to stay alive now work as virtual municipal employees, trying to restore and expand services like electricity, trash collection and water treatment. "I'm getting ready to go sit in on a political meeting at city hall," says Lt. Col. Christopher Dowling, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment.

"The norm for Fallujah a year ago was that if I halted my patrol or vehicle for anything more than 10 minutes I would get hit with RPGs or small-arms fire or an IED within the next five minutes. I truly did not know if that would be the last patrol I went on," says Capt. Sean Miller, also of the 3rd Battalion. "What's normal for me now is I believe I can walk down the street without getting killed."

U.S. and Iraqi officials have divided the city, American-style, into nine precincts to better deliver services. Miller's precincts include Sina'e, a once-industrial area now littered with debris and twisted metal. He envisions investors coming back to the area once it is rebuilt. In Andaloos precinct, which includes Elizabeth Street and is also part of Miller's domain, Marine 2nd Lt. Chris Caldwell leads his men on foot patrols, walking around the old souk, or market, which he expects to be fully open in a matter of days. He says progress is such that he has to remind his men that "complacency kills."

Marine Sgt. Richard C. Laster just began his third Iraq tour—all of them in the Fallujah area. "I've seen it go through all these phases," he says. "Three days after I arrived [this time], the first thing I did was talk to civilians and ask how they were, what they thought about us. It was such a relief to know they were finally coming around."

On Elizabeth Street, Iraqis say they are pleased the city is reopening for business. "You see my two sons here," says Kalad al-Kabasah, who owns a tailor shop. "They are 12 and 15. I couldn't get them to the store before. Now the Iraqi police control the street and the situation. Nobody's shooting anybody; nobody's planting IEDs. We can come back and work."

Miller and his lieutenants can recite the number of construction trucks that have come through town recently (45, up from three during the previous seven months) and the number of dumpsters (1,500), as well as open schools and mosques in their precincts. Miller knows the number of neighborhood watch people and Iraqi police operating in his precincts. He meets seven times a week with various sheiks, imams, school officials and mukhtars, or notaries public. "I feel I should run for mayor," he quips.

If he does he may find that the Anbaris are like constituents everywhere, constantly asking "What have you done for me lately?" As Caldwell walks along Elizabeth Street, a merchant approaches and complains that the electric power does not work all the time. He realizes there was no power at all just weeks ago, but he demands to know what will be done about the spotty coverage.

"They want everything in a month," Caldwell says with a sigh.