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Fallujah Citizens Return to Homes in Wake of Fighting

December 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Erik Eckholm, welcome. This was supposed to be a day when the first residents returned to Fallujah, and yet we have these reports of fighting.

What’s the situation as you understand it?

ERIK ECKHOLM: Well, this was supposed to be a very big day, the beginning of the resettlement of Fallujah. In fact, what was attempted was much less than that.

In just one neighborhood, they allowed several hundred people to come in during the day to look at their houses, see how much damage there was and think about whether they want to return.

But certainly one factor in everyone’s minds was that the fighting isn’t finished yet.

At the same time these people were coming in, in another part of the city, the Americans, the Marines were engaged in a very pitched battle, and three Marines were killed, in fact, and they had to call in air power to demolish a building that was full of insurgents.

TERENCE SMITH: Was this fighting unexpected? Did it take the U.S. forces by surprise?

ERIK ECKHOLM: Well, I think over the last week or two, there have been a series of unexpected encounters.

And in fact, the Marine general in charge of the region, who previously after the major fighting stopped last month had been quoted as saying, “we’ve broken the backs of the insurgency,” today expressed some astonishment at the fact that insurgents keep popping up.

They’re not sure if they’re sneaking into the city or they’ve been hiding there all along. But there has been a series of clashes, and over the last week the Marines have killed more than 100 insurgents.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, that sounds like a large number. I mean, that sounds like more than just a few handful of insurgents.

ERIK ECKHOLM: That’s right. It’s a great worry and they don’t know what to do about it. They have swept these areas. Somehow people are getting in or were hiding underground, or something.

But this is going to be a real obstacle to the resettlement. The great hope of the Allawi government and the Americans is that over the next month, the bulk of Fallujah residents will agree to move back and will take part in the voting for the national constitutional assembly which takes place on Jan. 30.

So this is a major political goal. But there are two problems: One is physically, will the city be in any shape to receive the people? And secondly, their attitude may be so resentful that they still will not participate in the election.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s the answer to that first question? What’s the physical state of the city after all the fighting?

ERIK ECKHOLM: It’s pretty lousy. All of the water purification and water distribution systems, virtually all of them were destroyed. There’s no electricity, no telephone.

So in the next… in the coming days as people start to trickle back in, the Marines were actually handing them cans so they can go to special, temporary water supplies and carry water back to their homes.

They’re giving them kerosene, so they can run electric generators to have a bit of light. They’re giving them blankets to guard against the quite cold, sometimes freezing, subfreezing weather there.

So it’s not a very happy situation, and many people may decide that they’re going to wait for some time before they move back.

But over the coming weeks, more and more people, presumably, will come in, one district at a time — maybe a few hundred or hopefully a few thousand in a day, just to look and make a judgment. That’s where they’re at now.

TERENCE SMITH: And do I understand these people did not spend the night or stay? They came in, looked and did they come back out again?

ERIK ECKHOLM: That’s right. Virtually everyone today just came in.

The men of military age were actually fingerprinted and other identification measures, which are going to be instituted in the future in the province, which will be a rather intensive and some may feel repressive kind of monitoring of the population.

But they were allowed to go in and look around, and then they left and went back to their refugee camps or relatives or wherever they’ve been staying.

But in coming days, I think the plan is that those who decide they want to move in will be given some money and whatever physical support can be provided to start moving.

And then, over the next few weeks, one neighborhood by one neighborhood, the same process will be gone through.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it conceivable or realistic to believe that significant portions of the population could get back by Jan. 30, and that conditions would be such that elections could be held? That’s just a little more than five weeks from now.

ERIK ECKHOLM: Right. It’s a little hard for me to believe that the American and Iraqi officials in the area think it may be possible.

First of all, everyone doesn’t have to have totally moved back into their old homes. But if the city is open and there’s access, then they can go back there to vote, which would be an important symbolic victory, I think, assuming that they want to vote.

I mean, right now a large number of Sunnis really are very disdainful of these elections and don’t want to take part.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay, well, we’ll have to track it. Eric Eckholm of the New York Times, thank you very much for joining us.

ERIK ECKHOLM: Thank you, my pleasure.