Iraqi residents of Fallujah are slowly being allowed to return to their homes, nearly two months after fleeing a massive U.S.-led offensive there. The military operation largely met its goal of recapturing the city from Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaida-related terror groups, who turned Fallujah into their base of operations earlier in the year. But, American troops and the Iraqi government now face the daunting task of making Fallujah livable again.
Waiting patiently in a long line of men at a military checkpoint on the western edge of Fallujah, a resident, who would only identify himself as Mohammed, is nervously chewing on his fingernails.
After living for two months in a tented refugee camp just outside the city with tens of thousands of other displaced Iraqis, Mohammed says he has finally received permission to go back to the house he fled two months ago.
The life-long Fallujah resident says he has no idea what he will see when he gets there.
"I want to go to my home today," said Mohammed. "For two months, I don't see my city. I speak to some people. One guy says all of Fallujah is broken. One guy says Fallujah is very good. I don't know."
Judging from a recent visit into the heart of the city, many returning residents will find Fallujah far from inviting.
Street after street, it is difficult to pick out a building or a house that has not been damaged. Many structures have been reduced to little more than giant piles of rubble.
After a month-long clean-up operation to remove numerous explosive devices, weapons caches, and booby-traps left by insurgents and terrorists, the U.S. military began opening some neighborhoods to residents. Some 40 percent of the city is now open, but U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Scott Ballard says few people are choosing to stay.
"It's apparent that most people are coming back into the city to check on their homes, their businesses, taking whatever humanitarian supplies they can with them and leaving," he said.
Located about 64 kilometers west of Baghdad, in a region dominated by tribal Sunni Muslims hostile to outsiders, Fallujah has long been a flashpoint for U.S. forces since the invasion in 2003.
Over the past year, foreign militants and Sunni Muslim extremists moved into the city and together with Fallujans loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, they divided the town into three zones of influence and turned the city of 250,000 people into a forward base for carrying out attacks throughout the region.
Last March, the U.S. Marines tried to re-take the city, but they were pulled out to give Iraqi tribal leaders a chance to peacefully disarm the militants and arrest foreign fighters. Those negotiations failed and with insurgents tightening their grip on the city ahead of national elections set for January 30, the U.S. military and the Iraqi government moved to oust them once and for all.
After warning residents to leave Fallujah, U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces swept through the city in November, conducting what some Marines have described as "the most intense combat since Vietnam."
With military operations largely finished, the focus now for U.S. troops and the Iraqi government is firmly on rebuilding.
Several dozen trucks move through Fallujah, picking up rubble and clearing roads. A 700-strong army of newly hired Iraqi laborers follow alongside them with wheelbarrows to help facilitate the work.
A U.S. Marine spokesman for the reconstruction, Major Jeff Lipson, says about $178 million have been set aside to fund various rebuilding projects, including restoring water and electricity services. He says the work is being closely coordinated with local government representatives and Iraqi ministers in Baghdad.
Major Lipson says everyone is working as quickly as possible to make the city livable again. But he says even simple repairs are proving to be difficult because so much of the city's infrastructure is old and crumbling. Water is flowing again in some parts of the city. But engineers say it could be several months before electricity can be restored.
In the meantime, the U.S. military has set up aid stations around town to distribute emergency food, bottled water, blankets, and kerosene heaters to help residents get by. The military has also identified nine sites in Fallujah to set up polling stations for this month's elections.
But it is clear that few people in this devastated city are ready or willing to participate in the polls.
A young man, who says he does not want to be identified for fear of reprisals by Americans, says he is too angry to think about anything but taking revenge against the U.S. troops who demolished his house.
The man's home was in the Jolan neighborhood of Fallujah, the site of some of the heaviest fighting between U.S. Marines and insurgents.
"The Americans destroyed my home, my life. I have nothing left," the Iraqi man shouts.
To quell such anger, the Iraqi government has offered families financial aid and property damage payments of up to $10,000 per family.
With massive rebuilding under way, the U.S. military hopes to convince residents that the city faces a much brighter future now than it would have had under the insurgents.