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Fallujah is more difficult to enter than any city in the world. On the road from Baghdad I counted 27 checkpoints, all manned by well-armed soldiers and police. "The siege is total," says Dr Kamal in Fallujah Hospital as he grimly lists his needs, which include everything from drugs and oxygen to electricity and clean water.
The last time I tried to drive to Fallujah, several years ago, I was caught in the ambush of an American fuel convoy and had to crawl out of the car and lie beside the road with the driver while US soldiers and guerrillas exchanged gunfire. The road is now much safer but nobody is allowed to enter Fallujah who does not come from there and can prove it through elaborate identity documents. The city has been sealed off since November 2004 when United States Marines stormed it in an attack that left much of the city in ruins.
Its streets, with walls pock-marked with bullets and buildings reduced to a heap of concrete slabs, still look as if the fighting had finished only a few weeks ago.
I went to look at the old bridge over the Euphrates from whose steel girders Fallujans had hanged the burnt bodies of two American private security men killed by guerrillas the incident that sparked the first battle of Fallujah. The single-lane bridge is still there, overlooked by the remains of a bombed or shelled building whose smashed roof overhangs the street and concrete slabs are held in place by rusty iron mesh.
The police chief of Fallujah, Colonel Feisal Ismail Hassan al-Zubai, was trying to show that his city was on the mend.
As we looked at the bridge a small crowd gathered and an elderly man in a brown coat shouted: "We have no electricity, we have no water."
Others confirmed that Fallujah was getting one hour’s electricity a day. Colonel Feisal said there was not much he could do about the water or electricity though he did promise a man that a fence of razor wire outside his restaurant would be removed.
Fallujah may be better than it was, but it still has a very long way to go. Hospital doctors confirm that they are receiving few gunshot or bomb blast victims since the Awakening movement drove al-Qa’ida from the city over the past six months, but people still walk warily in the streets as if they expected firing to break out at any minute.
Colonel Feisal, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s Special Forces, cheerfully admits that before he was chief of police, "I was fighting the Americans". His brother Abu Marouf, a former guerrilla commander, controls 13,000 fighters of the anti-al-Qa’ida Awakening movement in and around Fallujah. The colonel stressed that the streets of Fallujah were now wholly safe but his convoy drove at speed and was led by a policeman, his face hidden by a white balaclava, on top of a vehicle holding a machine gun and frantically gesturing oncoming vehicles out of the way.
The police station is large and protected by concrete and earth barriers. Just as we reached the inner courtyard we saw signs that the battle against al-Qa’ida may be over but arrests go on. From another part of the police station there emerged a line of 20 prisoners, each with his eyes covered by a white blindfold, gripping the back of the clothes of the prisoner in front of him. The prisoners reminded me of photographs of men blinded by gas in the First World War stumbling along behind a single man who could see and who, in this case, was a prison guard.
There are new buildings in the main street. I used to eat at a kebab restaurant called Haji Hussein, which was one of the best in Iraq. Then, as the occupation went on, I started attracting a lot of hostile stares. The manager suggested it might be safer if I ate upstairs in an empty room, and soon after it was destroyed by an American bomb. It has now been rebuilt in gaudy colours and seemed to be doing good business.
At one time Fallujah had a population of 600,000, but none of the officials in the city seemed to know how many there are now. Col Feisal is hopeful of investment and took us to a white, new building called the Fallujah Business Development Centre, which had been partly funded by a branch of the US State Department. Tall American soldiers were guarding a business development conference. "It has attracted one American investor so far," said a uniformed American adviser hopefully. "My name is Sarah and I am in psychological operations," said another US officer and proudly showed us around a newly established radio Fallujah.
At the other end of the city we crossed over the iron bridge built in about 1930 and now the only link with the far side of the Euphrates. There is a modern bridge half a mile down river but it has been taken over by the American army and, say locals, used as a vehicle park. On the far side of the bridge, past beds of tall bullrushes where people escaping the city during the sieges of 2004 tried to hide, there is a building eviscerated by bombs on one side of the road. On the other side is the hospital whose officials US commanders used to accuse of systematically exaggerating the number of those killed by American bombing.
When I asked what the hospital lacked Dr Kamal said wearily: "Drugs, fuel, electricity, generators, a water treatment system, oxygen and medical equipment." It was difficult not to think that American assistance might have gone to the hospital rather than the business development centre.
Colonel Feisal said things were getting better but he was mobbed by black-clad women shouting that their children had not been treated.
"Every day 20 children die here," said one. "Seven in this very room."
The doctors said that they were tending their patients as best they could. "The Americans provide us with nothing," said one mother who was cradling a child. "They bring us only destruction."
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His forthcoming book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq’ is published by Scribner in April.