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Residents Pick Up Pieces After Urban Battles

The center of Karbala sustained heavy damage in recent fighting. U.S. is handing out $10 million for reconstruction.

June 12, 2004|Monte Morin and Raheem Salman | Special to The Times

KARBALA, Iraq — Army Spc. Mark Miles scarcely believed his eyes as he trudged through the rubble of this holy city's main square recently, just yards from a blackened and cratered street dubbed "Sniper Alley."

Where Miles' unit and Al Mahdi army guerrillas had traded fire with rocket-propelled grenades and tank rounds little more than a week earlier, street vendors peddled fruits and cigarettes. A group of teenage boys smoked hookahs beneath a bullet-punctured awning while merchants swept powdered concrete and shrapnel from the street.

"This was some very deadly territory," Miles said. "The smell of death was very heavy here. To see it peaceful like this is just incredible."

About two weeks after the end of heavy fighting that ravaged downtown Karbala, building owners and residents are cleaning up and making repairs. Bucket loaders haul away bricks and workers patch walls of hotels and businesses that were blasted open during combat in April and May that left hundreds dead.

Residents here say they are confident that fighting between U.S. troops and fighters loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr has ended. Religious pilgrims can again visit the city, they add.

The U.S. government hopes to stoke Karbala's reconstruction with $10 million in "accelerated" grants, and it plans to announce recipients in the next few days. Ordinarily, such funds are reserved for the repair of public infrastructure, but these will be available for private and commercial buildings.

"This is part of a humanitarian effort," said Lt. Col. Garry Bishop, commander of American troops in Karbala. "We didn't just come here to tear things up."

City officials have advertised on local television for residents to file damage estimates and apply for aid, and hundreds have responded with photos and videotapes of damaged property. Last weekend, the long line of applicants included an elderly woman who said the ceiling of her house had been blasted off.

"We are taking the sky as a roof," said Sukaina Abbas, who did not know what the fighting was about.

Another applicant, Jumaa Abdul-Rassol Asadi, was near tears as he gestured toward his hotel, which was severely damaged in the fighting.

"I have sold everything I had to build this five-star hotel and this is the result," he said. "I will contact President Bush one way or another, just to explain to him my problem.... Who is going to compensate these damages for me?"

Karbala is one of the most sacred cities in the world to Shiite Muslims. It is also the burial place of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and one of Shiite Islam's most revered martyrs.

Along with the nearby city of Najaf, it draws millions of pilgrims every year, who provide a lucrative stream of income for residents.

The heavily damaged central square is just blocks from the gold-domed Shrine of Imam Hussein, where a tattered banner reads in English, "Karbala is a holy city. Do not destroy it."

Local officials say reconstruction is a matter of civic pride and economic survival.

"The owners of the damaged hotels, shops or houses feel sad, it is true, but each citizen of Karbala feels sorry for the damage. People are keen to see their city beautiful and nice," said Thamir Mousa Qizweeni, deputy governor of Karbala.

"One of my friends does not dare come to the city center now, just to avoid seeing the devastation."

Despite the pledge of U.S. grant money, some business owners say they are not counting on help from the Americans and have begun repairs with their own money.

"I did not go for compensation as there is no credibility. I do not trust the promises of the Americans," said bakery owner Hadi Abu Hassan, who began rebuilding his business this week.

Hassan said he wanted to waste little time in rebuilding, because he believed fighting between U.S. troops and the militia was over. Sadr's Al Mahdi army, he said, had discovered that they had no partisans among local residents.

"Nobody supported them," Hassan said. "They are shocked because they felt they were isolated.... Some feel remorse."

Other residents also blamed the insurgents for the devastation.

"We did not see the Americans before," said Ahmed Hadi Ali Jawharat. "But when the militias came, then the Americans were forced to enter the city."

Still, they say the city's recovery will be complete when American troops are gone as well.

"I expect life will be better as soon as the city is quiet," said Ali Hadi Abood, who sells cloth from a kiosk near the Hussein shrine. "Pilgrims will come and we will live a natural life as soon as militias and troops are not seen here."

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