Seen through the 3-inch-wide crack in the rear plate of our armored truck, Fallujah looked nothing like the thriving oasis of tree-lined boulevards and green residential compounds I remembered from before the war. Campaign posters covered many of the walls damaged by the major U.S. military assault of just over a year ago. But little in this damaged urban sprawl could hide the fact that Fallujah’s much hoped-for ‘comeback’ has been still born…this is a city of desert-grey neglect.
And, speaking to dozens of Fallujans as they voted at several schools-cum-polling stations in the center of the city that had seen the worst of the fighting, what seems to have emerged from the rubble is defiance rather than gratitude for the ‘clear-hold-build’ strategic ‘model’ that the U.S. government and military command have made of this Sunni stronghold.
‘’The clear-hold-build is what people here are talking about,’’ says U.S. State Department representative in Fallujah, John Kael Westin. ‘’The ‘clear’ happened a year ago. The ‘hold’ is happening now. And the rebuilding has taken longer than we would like but you’re seeing a city that is coming back to life.’’ Perhaps, but, in talking to Fallujans, it became increasingly clear to me that Thursday’s high turnout here was NOT an endorsement of US policy. On the contrary, even Fawzi Mohammed, who turned out in a suit and tie to vote at a boy’s High School--converted into one of 35 polling stations-- sounded more like an insurgent leader than Fallujah’s Deputy Director of Reconstruction. ‘’We are now taking a political step," he warned. ‘’It’s now up to the other side, the Americans and the [Shi’ite-led] government in Baghdad, to make the next move. If we can move forward on the same road, we will do that. But if not we will return to the fighting, guaranteed.’’
The resentment against America at the polling stations was not in-your-face. There was little if any tension between the Western journalists who had embedded with the 2nd U.S. Marines to cover the election and local citizens. It was often cloaked in a broad smile, and emanated as much from tribal pride and age-old suspicion of foreign invaders than from any ideological issue. We knew that insurgents were in the streets, dressed as ordinary civilians, unarmed, but watching and listening. Still, I was struck by the degree to which these voters were motivated by two goals: an end to U.S. military presence in the city and to the Iranian-backed Shiite government whose top ministers, Fallujans believe, command death squads and torture chambers full of Sunni detainees.
Sixty-three year old Mohammed Abdel Hamil smiled as he dipped his index finger in the purplish-red indelible ink after dropping his vote for a national Sunni coalition into a ballot box. This was a very different reaction from the fear I saw on the faces of the few brave Sunnis who defied a January boycott-- and death threats-- and voted in interim elections. Mohammed Abdel admitted boycotting that vote was a big mistake, leading only to more sectarian violence and leaving Sunnis with little representation at the highest levels of government. ‘’But we have learned from our mistakes, ‘’he told me. Why did he vote? ‘’I voted so that U.S. and coalition forces will leave this area and we are all one again. 13 of my family members are voting as well. We hope the torture of Sunnis in the jails will end, too, with the lying government of [(Shiite Prmie Minister Ibrahim] al-Jaafari.’’
Mr. Westin, the State Dept. representative, reminded me that a lot of what we hear are stock answers, cleverly meant to play to our audiences. That, in fact, Fallujans are more pragmatic towards their American ‘’occupiers’’. ‘’A year ago they were saying, ‘get the hell out of Dodge, get them out. Today they are saying ‘not quite yet’. They don’t want the Marines to be too far away.’’
But the anger generated by U.S. Marine patrols and night raids, as well stories of abuse at the hands of marauding Iraqi Army units, has father and son, Ahmed and Hasham Ibrahim, knowing exactly why they voted. ‘’I want to wake up one day, soon, and not hear the drone of U.S. airplanes over my house,’’ said Ahmed, who lives just across the street from one of the polling stations.
U.S. officials here like to site Fallujah as a test case, a kind of ‘ink blot’ where better security and stronger local leadership have joined forces in sending a message to insurgents that it is time to embrace politics and—at least for now—put down the IED’s and RPG launchers. ‘’The stakes are so high’, says Westin. ‘’This is not just strategic turf for the U.S. or the Iraqis. It’s strategic turf for [Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-] Zarkawi and the extremists. They remember what Fallujah was just a year ago. It was a Green Zone for bad guys. It’s no longer that.’’ But Fallujah now feels more like a Grey Zone for Sunni Arabs in a future Iraq. True, the turnout was a record high for the restive al-Anbar province, though figures are still unofficial. But the difficult questions remain, what will these ‘politically turned on’, provincial Sunnis be able to do with their votes, and their 9 seats in the 275-seat National Assembly? Will the government that emerges in Baghdad over the next weeks or months really address Sunni grievances? Will it amend the constitution, or recognize the insurgency or reinstate Saddam loyalists into the social fabric, all current Sunni demands? If not, will there be civil war? And even more American lives lost?
Observers here say the next 6 months to a year will be crucial. For now, in a post election press briefing, the Mayor of Fallujah, Sheik Dhari al-Arson, skirted the Western media’s prodding questions about his rapport with the insurgency. ‘’Don’t ask questions between the lines, ‘’ he admonished. ‘’Focus today on the positive things in the streets. Even though Fallujah has received only 20% of promised compensation for the U.S. offensive that destroyed this city, today we are participating in a political process. We are getting back on our feet. So many people voted that we ran out of ballots. The people are happy. This is like an electoral wedding party.’’
As we headed back to Camp Fallujah and the choppers which would fly us to Baghdad, we drove past the brdige where, 21 months before, an angry mob murdered and strung up the remains of 4 American contractors, triggering disgust in the American public psyche. I couldn’t help thinking that, in this city of suicide bombers, kidnappings and beheadings, wedding parties often lead to more funerals.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London currently on assignment in Iraq.