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Tuesday, December 7

Fallujah residents may return home within days

By Gordon Trowbridge | Army Times

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq - Military officials will be prepared within days for the return of civilians to the battle-scarred city of Fallujah, and local companies will soon begin clearing the way for reconstruction, the military official responsible for rebuilding efforts said Tuesday.

But the interim Iraqi government will make the final decision on when to reopen the city, said Navy Rear Adm. Raymond Alexander, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group.

Alexander said engineers estimate 5 percent to 10 percent of the city's buildings, once home to about 200,000 people, was destroyed in fighting between U.S.-led coalition forces and the insurgents who controlled Fallujah for months.

Fallujah is widely seen as a crucial test of U.S. and interim Iraqi government policy in bringing the country's restive Sunni Muslim minority into the political process. Military and government leaders have said they hope to ensure at least some participation from this area, the heart of the insurgency, in national elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

Among reconstruction options, Alexander said, is a plan to recruit out-of-work residents to aid in the effort.

``We can use all the help we can get,'' he said. ``If they come to us and say, `I've got no place to go, nothing to do,' we'll say, `OK, head over to that line. When we have enough, we'll form a work party.'''

But the work would be entirely voluntary, Alexander said, contradicting a Boston Globe report Tuesday that Marine officials could force Iraqi men into the work groups.

``We're not going to force anybody to work,'' Alexander said.

Fallujah is rapidly becoming safe enough for large-scale reconstruction involving Iraqi contractors, and ``security continues to improve daily,'' Alexander said.

First up: Removing debris from the battle. Four Iraqi companies are scheduled to enter the city Saturday to begin clearing hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of rubble from city streets, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steven Stefani, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group.

As Marine commanders declare city neighborhoods clear of insurgents and weapons, the military will OK those areas for return of civilians, though Iraqi officials will have the final word, Alexander said.

He said he had no way of knowing when that decision might come, but that the military's preparations would be completed in a day or two.

Alexander described a process in which heads of Fallujah households will be allowed into the city to assess damage to their homes. Residents will be directed to entry points around the city, but not allowed to enter unless they carry identification showing a Fallujah address, probably in the form of ration cards issued under Saddam Hussein's regime.

A bus system will return those residents to their neighborhoods, Alexander said. Personal vehicles will not be allowed into the city because of the threat of car bombs.

Military civil affairs teams will be on hand with claim forms for those whose homes suffered damage in the battle.

Alexander said Iraqi government agencies are just beginning to assess the state of the city's water and power systems. He said some ministries are moving quickly, while others are ``maybe not as fast as we'd like.''

He said some areas of the city remain flooded because of broken water mains, but the sewer system is mostly intact.

Fallujah has never had a sewage treatment plant; raw sewage was simply pumped into nearby streams. Alexander said he hopes a local contractor can begin work in January on a treatment plant, a job that could employ 2,000 local workers.