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Sunday, November 21

U.S. sees no pressure to return civilians to Fallujah

By Gordon Trowbridge | The Army Times

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq - Fallujah has been freed from ``a sick, depraved culture of violence,'' but it is unclear when the thousands of residents who fled the city in recent weeks can return to their homes, Marine officials said Sunday.

The Iraqi interim government sent a small team to the city on Sunday to begin setting up a civil administration for the former insurgent stronghold.

But Marine officers who briefed reporters Sunday evening said they could not estimate how long it would take to clear the last pockets of resistance, establish a municipal administration and provide basic services in a city shattered by nearly two weeks of high-intensity combat - all of which are conditions for letting civilians back into Fallujah.

The uncertainty highlights an overarching challenge for the U.S.-led military occupation and U.S.-backed interim government: While conquering Fallujah was seen as a must in combating the insurgency and setting the stage for national elections planned for January, immense destruction and delays in returning the city to something close to normalcy threaten to further inflame the Sunni Muslims who are already at the heart of the insurgency.

Still, Marine officials responsible for subduing the city said they will not unduly rush the reconstruction effort, and repeatedly said the Iraqi interim government, not the U.S. military, would decide when residents could return.

``I don't think there's pressure'' to rush civilians back into the city, said Lt. Col. Michael Paulk, a civil affairs officer with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Paulk outlined efforts to begin restoring electricity, water and sewer service to the city, including a plan to place water bladders at positions throughout Fallujah so citizens could draw water.

Military officials don't yet have a count of damaged or destroyed homes in the city, Paulk said, although he admitted damage was extensive. Journalists embedded with U.S. troops inside the city saw destruction on a massive scale, with entire city blocks of homes badly damaged or reduced to rubble.

Paulk said the $2,500 cap on compensation payments to Iraqi families that has been in place for months might not apply to Fallujah.

``Money is not the issue,'' Paulk said. ``The issue is properly compensating people for their loss of property or life.''

Safety is the first obstacle to returning residents, officials said. Lt. Col. Daniel Wilson, the expeditionary force's deputy director of current operations, said there are as many as 50,000 buildings in the city, all of which must be checked for insurgents and weapons room by room. What percentage of the city remains to be cleared hasn't been determined, he said.

Despite the many challenges ahead for Fallujah, Marine officers seem certain that they dealt the Iraqi insurgency a serious blow in the battle for the city.

``They no longer have a safe haven. They no longer have a place they can take hostages, torture and kill them,'' said intelligence officer Maj. Jim West.

West said Marine and Army units identified about 15 locations throughout the city that they believe insurgents used for torture or murder.

``There was a sick, depraved culture of violence in that city,'' said Wilson, the operations officer.