Despite media blackout, Fallujah rebuilds

Michael Fumento
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Posted: Aug 25, 2005 12:00 AM

After crisscrossing Fallujah by foot and Humvee in May, I reported on tremendous progress being made to restore “the city we had to destroy to save.” Actually fighting left most of the town unscathed; most damage was from three decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein. And rebuilding began almost immediately.

Good news from Iraq rarely gets a single story compared to the many thousands on a war protestor’s stake-out in Texas. Yet it occurs nonetheless. The following is from an e-mail by Navy Lt. Cameron Chen, head of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit of the 8th Engineer Support Battalion at Camp Fallujah, with which I had a short embed. You’ll see Chen doesn’t wear a mini-skirt and shake pom-poms but he’s certainly optimistic.

“The city is slowly rebuilding and returning to life. Some report that it's now the safest city in the Sunni Triangle due to the heavy presence of Iraqi police and army.  Every major intersection now has unarmed Iraqi police directing traffic in crisp short-sleeve button down shirts, white gloves, black flack vests, and dark blue pants. More frequently we’re responding to IEDs [improvised explosive devices] reported by local children, police and informants.

“The 10pm-5am curfew is still in effect.  But people can be seen on the streets up until the last minutes before 10. The streets remain unlit at night although there are green neon lights around the minarets of the major mosques.  Lines at the gas stations can be over a hundred cars long. Ironic since we are in the heart of oil country.”

A reason for this, which the media rarely report, is that the Iraqi government subsidizes gasoline so that it’s virtually free. Sell tickets to a pro football games for five cents apiece and see what kind of line you get. The subsidies also encourage smugglers, who can buy dirt cheap and sell exorbitantly high. Chen continues:

“On the main strip, restaurants and electronics shops are open for business. I have seen some sit down diner-type restaurants and others where people line up for food at teller-like windows. There is still a great deal of trash on the streets by Western standards but noticeably less than when we first arrived. Many people are moving back into the city and buildings are in various stages of repair. There are more vehicles on the streets; many are BMW's and Mercedes.”

On the other hand, Chen adds:

“I still don't understand why there isn't more commerce. It seems plain that hardware stores and gas stations are in demand. I read that many fundamentalist Muslims still consider any form of interest as being usury and have not embraced the cycle of debt and capital that feeds our economy. Most property is not used to secure collateral because of lack of deeds or titles and there is no entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe I am not reading the signs properly but I have yet to see a bank.”

Regarding safety, Chen writes:

“There’s still talk of foreign fighters entering the city to attack Iraqi and Coalition forces. Yesterday in [Fallujah’s outskirts] an IED detonated across the street from a busy new electronics and cell phone shop. Luckily nobody was hurt, but obviously the locals didn't know about the attack and whoever set the device was not a member of the local community.  I was encouraged hearing English-speaking motivated Iraqi army officers and non-commissioned officers who were optimistic about weeding out the insurgency.

“The insurgency continues despite the changes. We are seeing a lot of IEDs and we were inadvertently involved in a firefight that lasted for about half an hour (seemed like hours) up in Saqlawiyah [near Fallujah]. There are four different Iraqi Army battalions based within the city and each has a US Army advisory unit of about 20 officers and senior NCOs who have done an admirable job in training the Iraqis. It's arguably the most difficult job in Iraq but also perhaps making the biggest difference.”

No, Fallujah doesn’t rival Jamaica as a vacation resort. But last year at this time it was the epicenter of Iraq terrorism, filled with decapitators and bomb-makers. If progress can be made there, it can be made anywhere in Iraq. Don’t listen to the “quagmire” crowd. This war is being won.

Michael Fumento (mfumento at pobox.com) is a former paratrooper who was embedded with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Fallujah, Iraq. He is also a senior fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.