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Iraq Transition

Election leaves war-weary Fallujans cold

By Arwa Damon

Iraqis carry boxes of aid supplies from a distribution site in Falluja run by U.S. Marines.
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FALLUJA, Iraq (CNN) -- About 2,200 Fallujans daily come through what the U.S. military calls "Dave's Field," a dusty former soccer field in east-central Falluja that has been turned into one of three humanitarian aid sites in the city.

Men, women and children pile their arms high with rations being handed out by U.S. Marines -- ready-to-eat meals in dull pink packages, medicine and water in five-gallon drums. Residents are allowed to take as much as they can carry.

They also line up to get Falluja ID cards, and many talk disparagingly about the upcoming elections. Sunday, Iraqis will cast ballots for the 275-member transitional national assembly, which will be charged with preparing a draft constitution to be put up for a vote.

Khalil Ibrahim, standing in line with about 40 other men waiting for an ID card, said angrily, "My house is burned and looted. Burned and looted. My whole street. Were (the residents of the houses) all terrorists?"

In November, Falluja was the scene of intense fighting as U.S. and Iraqi troops waged a campaign to clear the city of insurgents.

Ibrahim said his shop also was burned and looted. But he said he had no choice but to bring his family of six back to Falluja because rent was too expensive in Baghdad where they had fled.

"Our hearts are burned," he said. And the wounds are something democracy can't heal. "How can we vote when we don't believe in what we are voting for?" he asked.

Most of the men standing in line said they would not be voting.

But Khader Mohammad Ishlan said he will. "Why should things be different for us? We don't want one flag for Falluja, we are all Iraq."

Whatever the number of Fallujans voting in Sunday's election, it won't be near the city's pre-war population, which was estimated at 250,000 to 300,000.

Iraqi officials estimate that 140,000 Falluja residents have come back to to survey the damage brought about by the U.S.-led military campaign to oust insurgents, but only a fraction, about 15,000, are staying in Falluja.

At Dave's Field, while there is talk of democracy, the focus is on necessities. Despite the need for food and basic supplies, the item in highest demand is the wheelbarrow.

"My house was destroyed," said 14-year-old Ali Daoud whose mother sent him to pick up a wheelbarrow so that they could start clearing out the rubble.

"I came yesterday, but they are out," said Leyla Haraj, whose husband was killed in a U.S. invasion of the city in April. Haraj returned in December, when U.S. and Iraqi officials announced residents of certain neighborhoods would be allowed back following another assault.

Haraj and her sister came with their 10 kids, saying they could not afford to pay rent outside of Falluja.

"I have been coming for 15 days for a wheelbarrow. Our house was destroyed. How am I supposed to clear it out?" asked Nawfar Mohanna, a mother of seven. Her family from the Andalus neighborhood had been staying in a school outside Falluja, but authorities made them leave.

Most neighborhoods are without electricity and water. U.S. Marines have set up water storage units every few blocks. An employee with the Ministry of Electricity said it would be one or two months before power is back. Residents said no gasoline is available.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities promised financial compensation for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed. Some residents have filed claims, and some said officials from the Ministry of Housing had been by to assess the damage. But, according to U.S. military officials, the Iraqi government is still figuring out compensation procedures.

Perceptions of disrespect

Less than a week before the election, problems with trust and respect run deep. Many of the men in the ID card line complained that the Iraq security forces were abusive and disrespectful.

"They tell us that they will stomp our faces with their shoes," one man said angrily. "If I had a gun I would kill them, and then let the Americans kill me, because they disrespect us and disrespect our women."

Iraqi Army Capt. Ahmad, who would not disclose his last name, addressed the group at Dave's Field, saying that they had to work together. "Half of you here could be insurgents. We have no way of knowing," he said. "It's you -- the residents of the city -- who know who the strangers are."

He added, "Yes, there are infiltrators in the Iraqi forces, and those who are abusive. But we need the people to help us identify them. If there are problems then they need to come and talk to the officers about it, so we can find a solution together. This is not going to be easy."

Capt. Tom Tennant with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, said one of the biggest challenges was transitioning from viewing Iraqi men as possible suspects to viewing them as respected heads of households.

He said most of the feedback he got from residents was positive, and people seemed happy the Marines were in the city.

But their needs are immediate and basic. Tennant said the most frequently asked question is when power will return.

South of Dave's Field, in Falluja's Shuha'daa neighborhood, residents sifted through rubble and swept up broken glass as children darted around.

Abd El-Rahman Al-Zobari, surveying the damage to his house, said he and his friends are not going to vote on Sunday. "Is this what they call democracy?" he said. "We don't want democracy that comes on the back of a tank."

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