- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

BAGHDAD — A light turnout for the Jan. 30 election is almost certain in Fallujah despite last year’s military operation to cleanse it of terrorists and insurgents: Ninety percent of some neighborhoods lie in ruins and most of its residents are living elsewhere, often as nomads or refugees.

Americans and officials of the interim government continue to hail the November offensive as a high point in the drive to stabilize Iraq’s Sunni heartland in time for the elections.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi spoke of the operation yesterday as “a significant success in terms of getting the terrorists and ridding the Fallujah people [of] terrorists and insurgents.”

But as residents who fled the city ahead of the offensive return for their first look at their former homes, tales of anger and despair are making their way back to Baghdad.

“What have we done to deserve this?” cried Wafat Hassan, who is living with her five children in a Baghdad mosque that has become a makeshift refugee camp for 930 Fallujah residents. “Shall we be away from our homes forever?”

Through the last half of 2004, U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed centers of the armed Sunni Arab insurgency including Fallujah, Tal Afar, Samarra and Ramadi to root out militants determined to disrupt the elections.

But the fighting has dispossessed and angered many of the same Sunni residents it was meant to serve, leaving them bitter toward an electoral process that needs their votes if it is to be seen as legitimate.

Inside Fallujah itself, U.S. Marines continue to skirmish with insurgent holdouts and find weapons caches. They are dying at a rate of about one a day.

The interim government has earmarked millions of dollars to rebuild the city, promising each family that lost its home up to $10,000 — about a fifth of the cost of rebuilding. Each returning family is also supposed to get about $100 to get started.

But the Fallujans at the Baghdad mosque who dared to visit their homes have come back horrified. Mohammad al-Rawa, a university student, said he found his house destroyed and 90 percent of his neighborhood in ruins.

“There’s no water, there’s no electricity,” he said. “No one can live in the city anymore. Even electricity poles are missing.”

Other Fallujans have turned into nomads, wandering the cities and countryside, according to Sheik Hussein Zubayee, the Fallujah native who runs the camp at the Mostafa mosque.

“They are in absolute poverty,” he said. “The women are selling their gold just to get some money. Here in the camp they’re eating only the basic necessities donated by others.”

Mrs. Hassan’s tale of woe shows the ways in which suffering can afflict Fallujans: sometimes at the hands of fellow Iraqis, sometimes by the weapons of U.S. forces and sometimes just as a consequence of bad luck.

About a year ago, bandits killed her husband while hijacking his car. Then, four months ago, the insurgents who ran Fallujah until the November offensive kicked her and her children out of their home, turning it into a resistance hide-out. In November, an American missile flattened the house. Then, her elderly mother got sick.

She scrounged for money and got her mother some medicine, but nothing seemed to work. About 10 days ago, her cash ran out and she was evicted from the small apartment she was renting, winding up at Sheik Zubayee’s camp.

“At least I have food to eat here,” she said as she wept over her stricken mother.

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