Published January 11, 2005
FALLUJAH, Iraq – When Ahmed Hussein Nasser returned to Fallujah (search) weeks after a devastating U.S.-led campaign to retake the city from terrorists, he could barely recognize the city where he had spent all 66 years of his life.
His anger against the Americans and Iraqi forces allied with them has only grown since his return — a worrisome sign for U.S. officials letting people back into Fallujah, a one-time terrorist stronghold where the population was generally believed to support the fighters.
"When I see Americans in Fallujah I feel as if I am seeing devils in front of me," he said.
On Dec. 23, the first people allowed into the city were residents of the western neighborhood of Andalus. The Iraqi government announced over the weekend that all the city's neighborhoods will be open for returnees this Friday. The government said so far some 60,000 people have returned to the city.
Few houses escaped damage from the intense American air raids late last year and the insurgent bombings and shootings that followed. Work teams have cleared rubble from the streets, but it is still tangled with downed power lines. Craters cut off access to side streets, and some buildings have walls or ceilings missing if they weren't simply destroyed.
There were suggestions before people began to return that they would have no idea of the devastation the campaign wrought. Some Marines south of the city reported people told them they thought Fallujah was practically unscathed.
Alaa Sabri Hardan, a 20-year-old agriculture student, said he lost his most valuable possessions — photo albums.
"I did not regret losing anything in my burnt house as much as I regret losing the 250 photographs of my childhood and my late parents," he said.
American officials have characterized their November battle as a fight to liberate Fallujah and have said the people returning have generally welcomed being free from the grip of the insurgents.
"Losing your home is a very emotionally distressing, no matter how the loss came about. All human beings will experience a roller coaster of feelings and undoubtedly look for someone to blame," Maj. M. Naoimi Hawkins, spokeswoman for the 4th Civil Affairs unit, wrote in an e-mail. "Many Iraqi residents have made it clear to me that they realize that foreign fighters brought about the destruction and are ultimately the ones to blame."
Though the conditions are poor, many wanted to return no matter what. One of them was Salima Ouda, who came back with her son Hamed Jasem and his family after spending more than seven weeks in a tent camp.
"Staying in our house is better than living in a tent where there is no running water for showers or even toilets," the 55-year-old widow said as she sat in her house, which was littered with bullets and few shells.
The government said that each family will get immediate financial aid of $100 and that more aid worth $500 will be given later. Residents whose homes were damaged will get up to $10,000, the government said.
Life has slowly improved in recent days as more people go out in the streets and vendors appear selling fruits and vegetables. U.S. troops continue to patrol some parts of the city to search for weapons caches and guerrillas who have trickled back.
People have running water and electricity for several hours every day, said Mohammed Hussein of the Ministry of Industry, which is supervising infrastructure projects in the city.
American military officials say they have witnessed little friction with Iraqis coming back into the city. Lt. Col. Daniel Wilson, deputy for current operations for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the only discontent he's seen has been due to frustrations over wait times at city checkpoints for entering residents.
Mohsen Abdul-Ghani was among the first to return two weeks ago and found his house undamaged, though everything inside was in shambles. A blue "X" had been spray-painted outside to signify that American troops had searched the building.
The 41-year-old professor at Baghdad's Islamic Law University left the city the same day to bring his family from Baghdad, where they have stayed during the attacks.
"When I came back the next day I found the house totally burnt although there were no weapons in it and the Americans had earlier put a blue X sign," he said.
Though he had no evidence, he immediately blamed the United States for killing and wounding civilians. He did not mention Iraq's insurgents.
"The Americans have destroyed our city," he said.