U.S. Marine engineers began assessing damage in Fallujah on Monday, driving through tableaux of devastation as huge explosions shook the city and the belching whir of a U.S. warplane’s machine guns sounded overhead while troops fought with holdout insurgents.
“It’s incredible, the destruction. It’s overwhelming,” said Sgt. Todd Bowers, a Marine civil affairs specialist attached to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment who is helping determine reconstruction needs. “My first question is: Where to begin?”
Journalists have not visited all parts of the city, and Monday’s tour with the engineers gave only a limited glimpse of conditions, but damage of varying severity has been seen in contested areas in the north, east and southeast and along the main road bisecting Fallujah and the main business district near the Euphrates River bridge.
Even before the assault on Fallujah, U.S. warplanes struck repeatedly at suspected insurgent strongholds here, and American forces opened their attack Nov. 8 with a heavy air and artillery bombardment that sent great plumes of smoke and fire over its neighborhoods.
Tricky targeting in densely packed city
A week of ground combat by Marines and some Iraqi troops, supported by tanks and attack helicopters, added to the destruction in a city where the homes and businesses for some 300,000 people are packed into an area a little less than two miles wide and a little more than that long.
Still, pinpoint targeting allowed U.S. forces to avoid the razing of whole neighborhoods, like that seen from combat during World War II. Many buildings that insurgents turned into strongholds are now just piles of shattered concrete blocks and bricks. Nearby structures, separated by only a low wall and a few feet of grass, stand untouched.
The office of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Monday that only about 200 buildings out of 17,000 in Fallujah had sustained major damage.
Lesser damage is widespread. Cats and dogs scamper along streets littered with fallen bricks, broken glass, toppled light poles, downed power lines, twisted traffic barriers and spent cartridges. Walls and security gates are laced with bullet holes. Marines have blown holes in walls and knocked down doors to search homes and shops.
Death in the air
Dead Iraqis still lay out in the open Monday, their stiff limbs akimbo, like department store mannequins knocked off their pedestals. At least two women were seen among the dead.
Most civilians appeared to have fled before the offensive, given early warning by Iraqi and U.S. leaders, but some stayed. A few families walked out of town Monday.
Some districts reeked from the sickening odor of rotting flesh, a stench too powerful for a brisk breeze sweeping in from the sandy plain surrounding the city 40 miles west of Baghdad. A Marine-directed body collection effort begun a day earlier stalled Monday when Iraqi workers demanded that Marines first open a road to their village.
U.S. commanders estimated 1,200 insurgents had been killed, at a loss of 38 Marines and six Iraqi soldiers through Monday.
Rebuilding the city for civilians
The Marine engineers visited a bridge and a water treatment plant to check on facilities that will be important in restoring some normalcy to Fallujah.
“We’re entering a stability and security phase, where we turn from an active combat phase to what you would call ’cleanup’ in old-fashioned terms,” said Lt. Col. Leonard De Francisci of Melbourne, Fla. “Even as we’re rooting out pockets of resistance, we’re trying to reopen the city for the return of civilians.”
The State Department said last week that the U.S. government had earmarked nearly $90 million for cleanup in Fallujah, including improving electric service, repairing water treatment plants, building housing and repairing roads. Iraq’s interim government had an additional $50 million in projects, spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The cost of clean-up
But Boucher stressed that the spending plans were preliminary. “That’s not the full cost. We think an assessment team will have to go in and figure out how much more that’s going to be,” he said.
There is much to repair.
The engineers’ convoy passed a wrecked market square, its wooden huts burned. Red chili peppers rotted in the sun, strewn about near an abandoned insurgent mortar position.
At an amusement park, bumper cars were tumbled on their sides. A whirling spider-shaped fun machine was torn by gunfire.
Along the main east-west commercial thoroughfare, burned cars stood in front of shattered storefronts, where electrical goods and sacks of grain spilled into the street. Other shops appeared less damaged, however. A Marine bulldozer scraped debris from the street.
Big red spray-painted X’s mark buildings across Fallujah. The marks signify structures that Marines have searched for insurgents and weapons, often after battering their way in.
Marines are billeting in homes abandoned by Iraqis, sleeping on mats and huddling against the nighttime cold under abandoned polyester blankets.
“All these houses have this stuff. They must treat their guests like kings,” said Lance Cpl. Freddy Ramosavilla, 22, of Commerce City, Colo.
The Marines are often careful to put back the sleeping gear and they burn the remains of their food rations, but they have had to build latrines in yards. And the rooftops from where they have watched for insurgents often look like huge ashtrays.