Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Fallujah Calling

Remember Fallujah? Three months ago, U.S. Marines waded into the warren of its streets and fought their toughest battle since Vietnam. They captured the former capital of the Islamist terrorists in Iraq. They ended the reign of Abu Musab al Zarqawi there, where he had created a grotesque miniature picture of what all Iraq would become if the U.S. packed up and came home, as war opponents wanted us to do.

Our troops scoured the city, and chased or killed the thug army that had made it its citadel. The fighting devastated Fallujah, which once had been home to 300,000 people. We said we would help them build a new Fallujah, when they returned. This was to be a showplace of the new Iraq, in the heart of the Sunni region, in the Baathist bastion.

Well, how's it going? Are we keeping our promise? Are we doing it well or poorly? What do the people say?

You'll never find out by reading the Associated Press. Or the New York Times. For the print media, Fallujah seems to have fallen off the map as totally as Atlantis.

Like the rest of the "rebuilding" leg of the Iraq story, Fallujah has been neglected by our media. There are exceptions, and I'll get to them in a minute. But when I scrolled back through the wire services we subscribe to -- AP, Knight-Ridder, New York Times, Cox, and half a dozen smaller papers -- for the past month, I found only a handful of stories about Fallujah.

We get daily coverage of U.S. military deaths from the AP. We get daily accounts of the terrorists' success in killing Iraqis. We get decrnt coverage of the evolving political rebirth of Iraq. But still, after two years, when it comes to the story of rebuilding Iraq, the news wires generally are silent, unless there's some bad news about Halliburton.

There are no photos of Fallujah on the AP photo desk, going back through February.

This is not a "good news" issue, as I've said before. The news might be bad. But there's no way to know if the press doesn't cover it.

Here's what I found on Fallujah.

Three stories moved on Feb. 20: One from the Boston Globe, one from the New York Daily News, one from the Washington Post. All of them reported from the city itself, and interviewed residents as well as U.S. officials. I suspect the military organized a field trip. Why didn't the AP or the New York Times go along and see?

Anne Barnard, of the Globe, found "A surprising quiet reigns on the streets of this city. ... Troops move through narrow streets with less firepower than they do in Baghdad and more readily leave the shelter of armored Humvees to talk with Iraqis. Downtown, a few shops have reopened to sell mutton and fresh fruit, and last week, traffic police reappeared, blowing whistles and waving white gloves at the cars that have trickled back into the city."

But the calm comes at the price of tight US control, and both Fallujans and the Marines say it won't last if the US military and the Iraqi government don't quicken the pace of reconstruction, which has been slowed by bureaucratic hang-ups and a tight security clampdown.

After months of insurgent misrule and a devastating invasion, Fallujans believe they deserve what one school principal summed up as "a better life than we're used to." But so far, they've received almost no clean running water, electricity, or compensation for their damaged houses.

Residents also don't like the hours-long waits at checkpoints to go in and out of the city, though they understand the purpose.

"I feel I am not welcome," said Mohammed Mahdi, an elderly man taking his wife and daughter back into the city for the first time after making a solo trip to inspect their damaged house.

He gestured at the maze of razor wire and berms he would have to cross.

"We have to have these; if we don't the terrorists will come to the city," Mahdi said. "But I ask the Marines to distinguish between terrorists and ordinary people. We suffered so much; we need respect."

The atmosphere is strikingly reminiscent of that in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq shortly after the US invasion nearly two years ago: People seem willing to forgive the destruction around them - and the indignity of occupation - if it comes with quick benefits.

Fair enough. Good reporting. Now I know something about the place that I didn't before. But how many people saw that story?

The New York Daily News sent Mark Mooney. Here's his lede:

This shattered city overrun by U.S. troops to root out terrorists is coming back to life and American officers brag it's now the safest place in Iraq. In the two months since the gunfire subsided, the bodies have been collected and rubble cleared from the streets. The Marines have recovered more than 400 weapons caches, destroyed 400,000 guns, more than 100,000 shells and nearly 800 roadside bombs. Generators hum, producing some light at night for the first time since November. Shops are stocking up again. About a dozen schools have opened because the children are back. They emerge from doorways or from behind piles of rubble in cheerful packs, hello-ing Marines or waving shyly.

He seems to have talked to more Marines, and fewer citizens, than did the Globe reporter. The tone is more positive, but then so are the quotes.

The third bit of coverage is from the Washington Post's Jackie Spinner. Her tone is decidedly negative. She pegs her lede on the director of a primary school in the city who fled before the fighting and returned to find the place a wreck.

When she returned this month, she looked around the school and cried, Hussein said in her small office, cold from the wind that was blowing in through shattered windows. The white walls were covered with messages that U.S. troops presumably left when they searched the premises for insurgents and weapons.

"Fallujah Kill Bodys," one message read. "USA No. 1," said another. And on a wall behind her, next to framed verses from the Koran, the Islamic holy book: "We came. We saw. We took over all. P.S. To help you."

Schoolbooks were strewn about, the doors were broken down and student records were torn and scattered, Hussein said. The scene was almost too much to face, she said, grappling with how to move on with her life amid the rubble of the nearly two-month battle.

Like many residents who have returned to Fallujah, Hussein is not sure how she feels about the military operation that silenced a terrifying insurgency but left the city in ruins and with an occupying force whose armored vehicles roam the streets.

"I cried so much. This is my dear city," she said, clasping her plump fingers, which peeked out of the sleeves of a long black dress. "We were hoping the Americans would bring us a better life than we had."

As the battlefield is gradually transformed into a construction zone, U.S. officials acknowledge that they have a limited amount of time to establish faith among residents eager for life to return to normal. If they do not rebuild the city quickly enough, the officials say, they risk losing their already tenuous support, a potentially dangerous situation with insurgents still reported in the city.

"We have a matter of weeks to get this right," said Col. John R. Ballard, commander of the Marine 4th Civil Affairs Group, based in Washington.

Yet Spinner seems to be the one paying the most attention to Fallujah. Before this one-day mini-flurry of coverage, only three other Fallujah stories appear on the wire, going back to the time of the Iraqi elections. One is a short piece by Mooney (dated Feb. 18) about hundreds of Fallujans turning out to apply for jobs on the new police force. The other two are by Spinner.

On Feb. 16, she wrote one under the headline "In a Calmer Fallujah, Marines Still Feel Insurgents' Pulse."

The Marines jumped out of their armored vehicles on a quiet dirt road in the center of this battle-torn city, with mounds of crumbled bricks, twisted metal and debris on both sides.

Within minutes, the patrol from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, Weapons Company was surrounded by dozens of hands pulling at their arms and reaching for their pockets.

"Mister, mister," little voices chirped, as a swelling group of 20 children pushed each other out of the way and called out for pieces of chocolate. The older, savvier ones grabbed a baby, borrowing one from a stranger if they had to, held it up and said, "Baby, baby," in English, an effort to get more candy from the Combined Anti-Armored Team.

Lance Cpl. Richard Setterstrom, a piece of shrapnel still in his leg from a Dec. 12 battle with insurgents, moved beyond the children and past badly damaged houses, each one marked with a red "X" to indicate that it had been cleared of weapons.

"It's weird walking by a house that we burned and seeing a family in it now," said Setterstrom, 19, of Butte, Mont.

"See that house?" said Lance Cpl. Michael Catalano, 19, of Lafayette, Colo., pointing across a large puddle of rainwater and sewage to a brown, two-story structure, its sides blackened from smoke. "A Marine died there."

For these Marines, the relative ease with which they walked through Fallujah one day last week was nearly as jarring as the sudden blasts of gunfire that greeted them during the U.S.-led offensive to retake the city from insurgents in early November. Although Marine commanders declared the battle over about a week after ground forces entered the city, deadly clashes continued through most of December.

And so forth. On Feb. 13, another story moved under her byline (I'm assuming "Jackie" is a woman). It was called "Returning to Fallujah." This one focused on the city residents.

Mohammed Farhan Jasam shifted from side to side on the dirt road at the bus stop, his feet dancing impatiently.

His youngest son, Barah, 12, stood beside him, trying to catch a glimpse of the bus that would shuttle them a few miles to the center of Fallujah.

Jasam and his family fled Fallujah before U.S.-led forces began an offensive Nov. 7 to retake the city from insurgents. The family moved to Ramadi, about 25 miles to the west.

On Sunday, Jasam, 50, an agricultural engineer who operates a honeybee farm outside the city, returned for the first time, anxious to see his house after hearing from neighbors that its gate and fence had been damaged in the fighting.

More than a dozen people bunched at the bus stop in front of a bullet-ridden apartment building. Finally, unable to stand the wait any longer, Jasam and his son set out on foot.

"I am very happy," Jasam said. "Between the terrorists and the Americans, we didn't have a chance to do anything. They were both pressing on us. I think the problem is solved."

At least 1,000 people a day pass through this bus stop on the northwestern edge of Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, on their way back to the city, said Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Willis, 22, of Petersburg, Ill.

The stop, manned by members of the 81mm mortar platoon from the Marine 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment Weapons Company, is at one of five entry points into the city controlled jointly by U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces. They are the only legal way into city.

As part of their duties, Willis and Lance Cpl. Michael Ray, 20, of Central City, Iowa, flag down civilian cars with an extra seat or two for those waiting for the bus, hand out water, call for escorts and direct people to a booth where they can get new residence cards, a requirement for re-entering the city.

Sunday, Ray sat on the hood of his Humvee and eyed the residents from behind dark shades. He said he could not wait to get home next month.

"This is a waste of time," Ray said. "I think they let the people back in too soon before they made sure the city was clear of insurgents."

There you go. You can quibble with the tone, but at least WaPo is out there, paying attention to the story, to the place that, for months, defined the U.S. frustration in Iraq. If you read that paper, you might not know everything, but you at least know something.

Where's everyone else?

[Needless to say, my paper picked up none of these stories.]

UPDATE: American Digest linked to this post, and gave it the headline I wish I had thought of: Atlantis of the Sands.