In Fallujah, voters give politics a chance, for now

A year ago, Fallujah was a devastated city, its population scattered, its buildings reduced to rubble after United States forces overran it in the most intense battle of the Iraq war.

Last week, the people of this city in the Sunni Arab rebel heartland turned out in droves to vote in Iraq’s crucial parliamentary election—which the US hopes will undermine the insurgency and lead to a withdrawal of American troops.

But such hopes could prove premature.

Sunni Arabs boycotted the election in January, which selected an interim Parliament. They might have reversed that decision and voted this time, but that doesn’t mean they are convinced politics will win over violence.

Many who voted on Thursday in Fallujah, 65km west of Baghdad, said they would give politics a chance—but warned the insurgency would intensify if they saw no improvement in conditions.

“If the situation is still like today, it will be a big problem,” said Najar Abdallah, a 26-year-old student outside one polling station.

“If the situation stays this way, with more arrested men, more bombs, with the government not listening, there will be big problems.”

Fallujah—a city so tightly controlled by US troops and Iraqi authorities that residents need biometric identity cards to get in or out—is crucial in the fight against the insurgency. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq group is believed to be active in the city and other parts of Anbar province such as the nearby city of

Ramadi.

Many Sunni voters saw the election—Iraq’s first for a full-term Parliament since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003—as a way to get rid of American forces and the Shi’ite-dominated government in power since April.

“We are going to the political [side],” Abdallah said.
“But if that doesn’t work, we will go to another side.”

Asked how much time he was prepared to give a new government, he said: “For three months, we will have patience.”

Opposition to the American military presence runs deeper among Sunni Arabs, the minority group which enjoyed a privileged position under Saddam, than among any of Iraq’s other religious and ethnic communities.

The current interim Shi’ite-led government is “an extremist government,” said Ahmed Majid (31) an industry ministry employee voting at a polling station set up in a Fallujah high school.

“We would like an end to the occupation. Really the only true solution is through politics. But there is the occupation and the only way that will end is with weapons.”

“The resistance will not end until the occupation ends,” he said. “I voted to get rid of Bush and the occupation. Bush and the occupation are worse than Saddam.”

American troops launched their first major assault against Fallujah in April 2004, after a mob killed four US security contractors and hung two of their mutilated and charred bodies from a bridge.

The city of mosques quickly became synonymous with Iraq’s insurgency, and American troops eventually overran it in November 2004 after a ferocious battle.

Fallujah “looked like a science fiction movie, with only dogs, cats and dead people,” said a Western diplomat who entered the city shortly after the fight. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to comment on the record.

A year on, between an estimated 150 000 to 200 000 people live

in the greater Fallujah area, but the city is still in ruins.

Broken minarets stand over some of its 80 mosques. Homes and shops are pockmarked with bullet holes, many buildings are little more than piles of rubble.

“The biggest challenge we’ve got in the city right now is not security or political engagement, it’s rebuilding, it’s reconstruction,” the diplomat said, and acknowledged that “rebuilding has taken longer than we would like”.

The US has earmarked more than $140-million for reconstruction projects in Fallujah—of which projects worth $48-million have been completed and projects costing nearly $55-million are still planned, the US embassy said.

But in the city, many complain the funds have been slow to come through.

“The people are not satisfied,” said Faouzi Mohammed, the deputy director of reconstruction for Fallujah. “During this government, [no money] has come to the people of Fallujah.”

He said that only a fraction of the millions of dollars earmarked for the city had actually trickled through. “So the people are suffering very much.”

A depressed economy could foster discontent and feed the insurgency in an area where it is never far from the surface. Even on election day—remarkable for the lack of violence after insurgent groups promised not to launch attacks—US marines stationed inside the city rushed to respond to sustained gunfire just after polls shut.

But politics does have a chance.

“When I talk to the Iraqi leaders, they have told us for months and months that there’s two separate types of resistance. There’s the national resistance that many of them have sympathy for, and then there’s foreign, the religious extremism, that they are against,” said Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Carroll, an Arabic-speaking liaison

officer with the II Marine Expeditionary Force.

Those who sympathise with what they call the “national resistance” have now decided to join the political process, said Carroll, “whereas the Zarqawi religious extremists are slowly starting to be peeled back”. - Sapa-AP

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