Image: Iraqi civilians at a distribution center set up by U.S. Marines.
Marco Di Lauro  /  Getty Images file
Iraqi civilians receive supplies at a distribution center set up by U.S. Marines in Fallujah, Iraq, on Saturday.
updated 11/23/2004 10:38:51 AM ET 2004-11-23T15:38:51

“Imagine it’s your mother!” an Iraqi man shouts, demanding the Marine open a bridge north of Fallujah so an ailing woman can get medical treatment.

Capt. Alex Henegar winces but handles the complaint, using the type of on-the-fly diplomacy Marine officers believe can assuage angry Iraqis and draw them in to support the rebuilding of the city, devastated by the recent U.S. assault.

With rebels largely routed, Marines hope insurgent intimidation campaigns will be curtailed and that U.S. forces will be able to forge new relationships with Iraqis and pour development funds into the city to cement military gains.

“This leaves us ahead. It’s hard to imagine, I know, because of the destruction. But things had been backsliding for months,” says Henegar, a civil affairs officer attached to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

“This has allowed us to start over. We no longer have a haven of dark chaos in the heart of Iraq. In some cases, we need to break things down in order to start over,” said the 30-year old from Lookout Mountain, Ga., — a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “Security is a necessary condition for everything else.”

At the scene at the bridge, Henegar promised the crowd that if it allowed the first post-assault humanitarian shipment to pass unimpeded, he would ask his superiors for permission to open the bridge permanently.

The Iraqi crowd nodded until an Army soldier angered by mortar fire coming from the ailing woman’s village shouted at the interpreter: “Tell them as long as they’re shooting at us, the bridge stays closed!”

“Whether they articulate it or not, everyone has a theory about what works” said Henegar, who was able to get the woman to medical care.

Reconstruction begins
Marines say the restive Sunni Triangle, including Fallujah, is a particularly nettlesome environment for the development projects meant to win over Iraq’s people.

Following an aborted Marine attack in April, rebels took over the city, which the U.S. military says became a locus for the bombings, ambushes and kidnappings plaguing the country.

Now, with dead bodies scattered over a devastated city nearly devoid of its 250,000 civilians, U.S. forces are turning to reconstruction efforts ahead of elections scheduled January 30.

Any success in calming the insurgency around Fallujah could be used as a model elsewhere in the country, they hope.

“If this (Fallujah) is a success story, then the message will be to get rid of the terrorists militarily and you’re back on track,” says civil affairs Lt. Col. Leonard De Francisci.

The U.S. forces plan to refurbish Fallujah’s electrical grid and water-treatment facility, clear its roads of rubble and inspect buildings for structural soundness — and at least one military estimate says civilians won’t return until February.

Together, the Iraqi government and U.S. military have set aside $178 million for immediate repairs.

Further out, there is $1.2 billion in long-stalled funds earmarked for Anbar province, part of the $18.4 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds that Congress approved for rebuilding Iraq.

Officers say rebels intimidated many Fallujah residents, taking over homes and executing those who resist — stymieing U.S. efforts to spend money on people in and around the city.

“No amount of money I could have paid them would have allayed their fears,” said Henegar. “The insurgents would simply say ’we’ll cut off your head.’ What’s more compelling?”

Grisly tasks build trust
In an initial, post-attack trust-building exercise, Henegar arranged with a local imam to have men from a nearby village help in removing the bodies of the estimated 1,200 insurgents killed in Fallujah since the Marine-led assault began Nov. 8.

The Marines hope the grisly task can establish relationships with local Iraqis needed as partners in reconstruction — and turn up leaders to help in the effort.

“The very first, most basic thing is engagement, building relationships. But the challenge is picking the right people with whom to engage. We really can’t just reach down and pick leaders,” says Henegar.

In the area near Fallujah, the entrenched leaders are often local sheiks, whose thicket of tribal and political affiliations aren’t greatly understood by Marines.

One sheik helping in the body-collection effort, who gave his name to reporters as Abdul Hamid, smiles and joked with the Marines. But when they’re not listening, he calls them the “Jew Americans.”

The sheik denies to reporters that rebels ever had any presence in Fallujah, saying the Marines massacred only civilians.

“You can leave the city in the control of the sheiks and Iraqis,” he tells the Marines, “because they are able men that people listen to and follow.”

Marine civil affairs leaders say they’re hoping to skirt politics in the short term, turning instead to people with established skills in running a metropolitan area.

“I’m going to look for a technocratic leadership, to administer the city and keep it running. I want to take the politics out of it,” says De Francisci.

De Francisci, 39, from Melbourne, Fla., says Fallujah may not immediately have a thriving American-style democracy.

“What you’re going to see is not Jeffersonian democracy, but probably some religious-style democracy,” he said. “Not like you’d see in America, more like early Roman democracy. It won’t be one person, one vote — more caucuses.”

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