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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Iraqi City Lies in Ruins

Rebels are reportedly making their last stand in Fallouja. The next step, reconstruction, could cost the U.S. tens of millions of dollars.

November 15, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — Even as small groups of guerrillas continued putting up fierce resistance here Sunday, U.S. commanders were preparing for the next phase of the operation: the complete reconstruction of a city that has been devastated in battle.

"It's a monumental task," acknowledged Marine Maj. Timothy Hanson, one of the first civil affairs officers on the scene to assess the scope of destruction in the city that had become the tactical and inspirational capital of the Iraqi insurgency.

Reconstruction of Fallouja is on hold as the fighting persists, especially in southern areas of the city, where some of the most die-hard guerrillas are reported to be making a last stand. Some have burrowed underground, prompting U.S. forces Saturday to drop a 2,000-pound bomb -- the most powerful munition used here to date -- on a tunnel complex.

Marines and allied Iraqi troops sweeping through the southern neighborhoods have found numerous bomb-making factories and massive arms caches, underscoring Fallouja's role as a supply center for the insurgency nationwide, commanders say. Moving the vast storehouses of weapons and destroying them has proved a logistical challenge in this war-ravaged city.

"We want to clean this city up," declared Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division. "We want to get the people back here. But we can't bring them back until the city is secure."

Automatic-weapons fire and explosions continued to rock the center of the city, though much diminished in the past 24 hours. The U.S. military reported that at least 38 American troops and six Iraqi soldiers had been killed in eight days of fighting.

Elsewhere in Iraq on Sunday, insurgents destroyed the highway bridge in Baiji, forcing the closure of the main road from the northern city of Mosul to Baghdad. In Mosul, U.S. and Iraqi troops fought a six-hour battle with insurgents, and casualties were believed to be heavy, although hospital officials refused to discuss figures. Militants seized a police station, but U.S. and Iraqi forces regained control.

In Baghdad, more than a dozen insurgents attacked the Polish Embassy and exchanged gunfire with embassy guards for half an hour, a Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Warsaw. No one was reported killed or wounded.

In Fallouja, U.S. troops said they found the mutilated body of a woman covered with a blood-soaked cloth in a street. News services quoted a Marine saying he was "80% positive the body was that of a Westerner." Two Western women are known to have been kidnapped and are still missing: Margaret Hassan, the director of CARE International here, and a Polish woman who is married to an Iraqi.

The reconstruction effort in Fallouja will require tens of millions of dollars in U.S. funds to compensate residents for damaged property and to rebuild large parts of the city damaged by weeks of U.S. airstrikes and street-by-street fighting.

The project seems likely to dwarf the large-scale rebuilding scheme in the southern city of Najaf, where damage was estimated at $500 million after a Marine offensive in August ousted Shiite Muslim militiamen.

Fallouja once was home to almost 300,000 people, though most fled before U.S.-led forces launched the assault early last week. The city now lies abandoned and in ruins, a tableau of the aftermath of urban warfare.

The town's main east-west drag, a key objective of U.S. troops, is a tangle of rubble-filled lots and shot-up storefronts. Shattered water and sewage pipes have left pools of sewage-filled water, sometimes knee-deep. Scorched and potholed streets are filled with debris; power lines droop in tangles or lie on the ground.

Many mosques, the city's pride and joy, are a shambles after insurgents used them as shelter and firing positions, drawing return fire from the Marines.

Houses have been ransacked by insurgents and further damaged as U.S. troops chased snipers, searched for weapons caches or took cover in the homes. Marines routinely called in tanks, artillery and airstrikes to take out gunmen.

But the bombed-out buildings are only the most obvious damage.

There is no running water or electricity. The water, power and sewage infrastructure will probably need complete overhauls.

Food distribution systems must be reinstituted. Shops must be reopened, commerce resumed. Battered hospitals, clinics and schools must be patched up and reopened.

Beyond that, U.S. officials have lofty plans to help install a democratic government here that will answer to the administration of interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. A police force of more than 1,000 officers must be deployed in a city where police have been consistently targeted for assassination in the past as collaborators with the Americans.

"The challenge is to get a civil administration up and running, and they are starting from zero," said a senior U.S. diplomat. "They have to do everything from getting the director of the waterworks to come back to work to getting a chief of police."

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