Spate of Attacks Tests Iraqi City and U.S. Pullout
FALLUJA, Iraq - Falluja was supposed to be a success story, not a cautionary tale.
After all, by last year the city, a former insurgent stronghold, was considered one of the safest places in the country. Local Sunni sheiks had driven out the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and held successful elections, and American engineers were hard at work on a showcase reconstruction project: a $100 million wastewater treatment plant meant to be a model for civilian advances in Iraq.
Then a series of troubling attacks began cropping up this year. One in particular, at the end of May, seemed to drive home the possibility that things were changing for the worse. On a heavily patrolled military road between a Marine camp and the wastewater plant, a huge buried bomb tore through an armored American convoy, killing three prominent reconstruction officials and striking at hopes that the way was completely clear for peacetime projects.
With the June 30 withdrawal deadline for American combat troops from Iraqi cities and towns drawing near, that attack and others like it are particularly ominous for officials who see Falluja as a test case for the rest of the country. Security here is becoming a solely Iraqi operation, and while the United States military says the number of attacks remains encouragingly low, there are signs that Falluja could again plunge into violence.
Falluja has enormous symbolic significance both to insurgents and to Americans. It was the site of the war's only real set-piece battles, in 2004, and probably the fiercest urban warfare involving American troops since the 1968 battle of Hue, in Vietnam.
By last summer, the local Provincial Reconstruction Team from the American Embassy was dining alfresco at sheiks' houses on the banks of the Euphrates. Now, the Americans avoid Falluja's main street because "it's been a little problematic recently with some RPG and small-arms attacks," said the team's leader, Phil French, referring to rocket-propelled grenades.
The Marines have been steadily drawing down this year in Anbar Province, which includes Falluja, and they will be gone from the Falluja area by next month. They have only a remnant of their forces in Camp Baharia, just outside the city, and they no longer run combat patrols through the area.
"In 2008 it was almost completely stabilized," said Brig. Gen. Sadoun Taleb, a member of the anti-insurgent Awakening militia who is now in the police in the village of Shihabi, a former trouble spot outside Falluja. "In eight months, not one thing happened. Now these last seven months, it's getting worse and worse."
American commanders in the region dispute that perception. "The facts and statistics prove it's a much safer city than it was a year ago," said Col. Matthew Lopez, commander of the Marines in eastern Anbar Province. Instances of violence have declined 20 percent in the past six months in eastern Anbar, he said.
The new attacks are aimed at the Iraqi Security Forces, not the Marines, he said. "The leadership of the I.S.F., and especially the Iraqi police, are much more sensitive to attacks on them," Colonel Lopez said. He added: "Things get a lot more attention when they're rare."
Still, the attacks have been chilling - especially the killing of the three Americans, whose 11-vehicle convoy of armored sport utility vehicles was headed into Camp Baharia when the bomb destroyed one of them.
About a week later, on June 3, the Falluja reconstruction team went to a meeting with local officials in nearby Karma. A sniper shot one of the Marine escorts, wounding him, but not fatally.
On Saturday, a bomb hidden in a parked car near Karma blew up and killed three members of a passing Iraqi police patrol.
Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Youssef, the Anbar Province police commander, arranged a street-level tour of Karma for a reporter with The New York Times last week. But the walk was cut short after just three blocks, and took place only after the general ordered dozens of Provincial Security Force troops to clear the streets and rooftops first.
During the tour, an old woman in a large, shapeless gown approached the general suddenly, and he started. "I thought she was a suicide bomber at first," he recalled later, laughing. The woman wanted only to shower the troops with fistfuls of wrapped candy, an Iraqi custom.
Much of the new violence is attributed not to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that American intelligence says is led by foreigners, but to more local insurgent groups, including the Mujahedeen Army, which claimed responsibility for killing the three American reconstruction officials, and the Islamic Army of Iraq. Both groups claim to be part of the "patriotic resistance," made up of Iraqis only.
On June 15, Iraqi police units in Falluja began an anti-insurgent operation without any support from the Marines; their own Marine advisers were unaware of it. With a list of 13 terrorism suspects to round up, they raided houses in the Jolan district, where the insurgency was once strongest. They found two of them in the first few hours of what they said would be a 10-day operation. They also carried out random house searches in Jolan.
"The Americans used to raid us and break down the doors; people were scared of them," said one resident, Hajji Ali, as the police searched his house. "These guys are my brothers."
The Islamic Army began distributing fliers a month ago throughout the Falluja area, vowing to attack only "occupiers," but not Iraqi civilians or officials, according to Col. Daoud Suleiman Hamad, deputy chief of the police force in Falluja. "They claim if the Americans leave, they won't target anyone," he said, "We've been through that before; Al Qaeda said that, too."
Iraqi police officials attribute the situation not to a lack of Marines, but to the Americans' accelerated release of detainees from the Bucca prison camp, soon to be handed to the Iraqis.
Brig. Gen. David E. Quantock, commander of the United States Army's Task Force 134, which runs detention facilities in Iraq, said the releases had not caused an increase in violence. "It's perception, because all of our analysis showed it had nothing to do with any of them," he said.
Mr. French, the reconstruction team leader, said, "Everyone's feeling squirrelly now because we're in a transition phase, where the perception was that the release of the Bucca detainees and the withdrawal of the Marines would make things worse."
"My inclination is to say, yes, the security is worse," he said. "Are there really any more incidents? I don't think so." His team has not reduced its activities in the Falluja area, he said, but "we keep a low profile."
Campbell Robertson contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Falluja.