FALLUJAH, Iraq – Undersecretary of State Robert Zoellick (search) — on a surprise trip to Iraq to meet with newly elected government leaders — inspected reconstruction efforts in this former insurgent stronghold Wednesday and was promptly greeted with complaints by civic leaders of little progress.
The most senior Bush administration official to venture into the city since Marines captured it last fall, Zoellick had expected to tour a water pumping station and a bread-making factory to observe signs of the city's progress.
But he was confined to a caravan of armored transport vehicles — except for a meeting with Fallujah's (search) civic leaders at a fortified military compound. Marines said the security situation in the city remained tenuous, although daily attacks were down.
Zoellick urged Iraqi citizens to lead efforts to reconstruct their own hometowns, even as the United States, its allies and the fledgling Iraqi democratic government assist.
"To bring a city back to life, it has to be done by the people of that city," he told Fallujah's interim city council.
The No. 2 official at the State Department, Zoellick arrived in Iraq a day after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) visited. The two U.S. officials did not cross paths. Both trips were kept secret for security reasons until their entourages landed in Baghdad.
Marines ousted insurgents from Fallujah last November. A month later, Rumsfeld visited troops at Camp Fallujah, just outside of the city, but he did not venture off the base. Several U.S. senators have toured the city in the meantime.
Rice, who has not been to Iraq since taking over the State Department in January, sent Zoellick to Iraq to gauge the political situation, reconstruction efforts and economic priorities to determine how the United States can ensure progress on all fronts as the Iraqi government takes shape.
The State Department says about 90,000 Fallujah residents have recently returned to their city 40 miles west of Baghdad, and there are signs of the potential for rebirth. A commercial area that includes a market, a service station and a bread shop is bustling. Tractors and backhoes stand by ready to rebuild.
According to the State Department, water is now available in most parts of the city, electricity has largely been restored in the northern region that sustained the worst damage and three of five hospitals are open.
"The city of Fallujah has taken its first step toward reconstruction," Shaik Khalid Hamood Mahel al Jumaly, the city's interim council chairman, told Zoellick. "It wants to move forward and be rebuilt."
But there also were many signs — and statements — of Fallujah's needs.
Mounds of debris from crumpled structures filled each city block, and interim city council members expressed frustration about how long it was taking for residents to get reimbursement checks for their damaged homes. Some officials said residents weren't being paid enough compensation for all that had been destroyed.
They also complained of unsafe drinking water, an inadequate sewer system and little food aside from rationed goods. Residents fretted about not having enough jobs.
After listening intently, Zoellick told Fallujah's leaders: "I know it won't be easy. There will be many days of frustration, even threats. We can help, but you have to make it happen."
His visit comes as the State Department sharpens its diplomatic campaign to help the fledgling democracy rebuild its battle-scared infrastructure and tattered economy.
While traveling to the Middle East, Zoellick told reporters that the United States has been seeking more cooperation on reconstruction with its allies.
He acknowledged political and economic challenges facing Iraq. But, he said: "the pieces are coming together" even though the country still is "suffering pangs of violence."
Zoellick visited Iraq between a trip to Norway to address donors for Sudan at a conference and one to the African country itself.