FALLUJAH, Iraq — The insurgents are back in Fallujah.
Last week, Ali Hassan, a 23-year-old soldier from Baghdad, was careful to wear civilian clothes and leave his gun behind when he went for a haircut, but it didn’t help. Three extremists found him in the Fallujah barbershop and put a bullet through his head.
No one knows how many terrorists have returned to what was once their most formidable stronghold. They increase with the population, which now stands at about 130,000 — half of what it was before a massive U.S. offensive in November.
After five months of relative quiet, U.S. forces training Iraqi soldiers in Fallujah say the pace of attacks is increasing, but it is not clear whether this is the beginning of a new crisis or a last-ditch effort to derail security before the October constitutional referendum.
U.S. commanders say the attacks are uncoordinated and often ineffective, suggesting the insurgent leadership that was once here has been disrupted. If the political leaders in Baghdad get their act together, they think, the terrorists will not be able to regain the power they once had.
That is cold comfort for the Iraqi soldiers, who fear for their safety not just on the streets of Fallujah but when going on leave every month. Three or four soldiers in the 2nd Battalion have been killed while traveling home to Baghdad for their one week of leave every month.
The generous time off is necessary to allow soldiers to take home their pay — about $300, roughly 2 times the national average income — as there is still not a functioning banking system.
They used to be transported by armed convoy, but the U.S. military does not have the forces to spare for the eight-hour round trip.
“This is their show,” said Marine Capt. Todd Sudmeyer, 35, referring to the Iraqi brigade and Ministry of Defense. Sending out two Humvees to protect a convoy would absorb half his combat power.
The Iraqi soldiers often just flag cabs, in civilian clothes and without their weapons, and hope for the best. On back roads, however, they sometimes run into insurgent checkpoints and some are killed.
The soldiers say they joined the army to help bring stability to their country, but at least half joined simply for the money, said Dr. Khadim Ali, 29, an anesthesiologist who enlisted in the new Iraqi Army as a lieutenant.
That became clear in December, when the current battalion got its orders to deploy to Fallujah.
“You looked out the rear-view mirror and there were guys bailing out of moving cars when they found out where they were going,” said one American sergeant.
Ahmed Brahim, 20, a self-taught interpreter with a Caesar haircut, said: “I knew I was coming to hell, but what could I do about it?
“I don’t trust no one in Fallujah. Intelligence says 70 percent of the people here support the insurgents and 30 percent don’t. But I don’t think the 30 percent are still here,” he said.