By Albert Eisele - 04/07/05 12:00 AM EDT
FALLUJAH, Iraq — This devastated former insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, where some of the worst violence — and one of the grisliest scenes — of the two-year war in Iraq took place, is shaping up as the key to the success or failure of the Bush administration’s historic effort to reinvent Iraq.
That was evident last week as James Jeffrey, deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, came here to confer with the commander of the 23,000 Marines who still patrol this dangerous region and to meet with some two dozen local police and government officials, Arab sheiks and Sunni clerics.
“This is the future of Iraq,” Lt. Gen. John Satler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force that drove Iraqi insurgents and foreign Muslim fighters out of the city in an epic 11-day battle last November, told the local leaders as Jeffrey stood by.
The salty-tongued Satler, who was reassigned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., at the end of March, portrayed Fallujah as a crucial test of the U.S.-led multinational coalition’s ability to provide security, assure political stability and rebuild Iraq’s shattered urban centers.
“If you can make Fallujah work, it becomes a status symbol and the whole Arab world will be looking at what they have done for Fallujah,” he said.
Satler and Jeffrey also made it clear that the prospects of reducing and eventually ending the commitment of some 175,000 U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq will be greatly enhanced if Iraqi security forces can be trained and equipped in sufficient numbers.
At the same time, they said, hundreds of millions of dollars must be spent in Fallujah on economic reconstruction by creating jobs and restoring basic services, including water, sanitation facilities and electricity.
“We’re at the very beginning stages now,” Satler said. He and about a dozen other senior Marine officers gave Jeffrey an update on the military situation in their region and, in turn, heard Jeffrey describe the political situation and economic reconstruction effort before they met with the local leaders.
The meetings in Fallujah came almost exactly a year after the world was subjected to the ghastly scenes of the charred remains of several American contractors whose bodies were hung from a Fallujah bridge. The scene was the prelude to the bloody battle in November that drove insurgents from their fortified and well-armed base in Fallujah.
Jeffrey is running the U.S. Embassy until the arrival of Zalmay Khalilzad, the current ambassador in Afghanistan whom President Bush nominated Tuesday to replace John Negroponte as ambassador to Iraq. Jeffrey gave the Marines an update on the overall military, political and economic situation in Iraq.
He said coalition forces have made “tremendous progress” toward defeating the insurgent and al Qaeda elements in most areas of Iraq, although the violence directed against coalition forces and Iraqis who are cooperating with the coalition “is still very worrisome.”
And he said that 100 50-man units of Iraqi Army and security forces, including local police, are in place, of which about 50 are ready to be deployed nationwide. “That’s a huge difference and huge investment,” he said, with between $5 billion and $6 billion already spent and about an additional $10 billion committed by the end of this year.
But it’s not the money, he said, “it’s the mentoring and training that are important.”
On the political front, he said the successful outcome of the Jan. 30 elections has provided important momentum, but he expressed concern about the vacuum that exists until the newly elected national assembly and its leaders are chosen.
The problem, he said, is that “the old government is not willing to take action, and the new government doesn’t exist yet. We’re a bit frustrated, but that’s democracy.”
Finally, on the economic reconstruction front, Jeffrey said $100 million has already been spent on Fallujah, with another $100 million in the pipeline.
“Let’s face it: We’re winning,” he said. “It needs to be said that we are winning. This is a very, very, very difficult thing we’re undertaking, but we’re winning and we need to continue pouring resources into Fallujah.”
Satler acknowledged the difficulty of finding the right local officials and working with them. “There’s dust on everyone here,” he said. “So you have to go down until you find somebody without blood on his hands. That’s the person you have to deal with.”
But one Agency for International Development official said more and more local leaders are willing to cooperate in the rebuilding effort.
“We’re beginning to see them at the table now, and they’re beginning to ask questions. We’re shifting from one level to another. We’re dealing with the Iraqi mind and not the U.S. mind. We’re trying to deliver the goods, but it’s going to be a long process. It’s water running into one more house. It’s electricity going into one more house.”
Satler pointed out that more than 2,000 government workers showed up for work in Fallujah the day before and “15,000 people came into town yesterday. There were less than a thousand in December.”
A few days later, Satler repeated his message while hosting Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
“A year ago, we had an insurgency that operated with impunity inside Fallujah,” Satler said. But now there’s a growing partnership between U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces that he said bodes well for the future.
Satler said, “We get a lot of visitors here, but you haven’t visited Iraq if you haven’t visited Fallujah.”