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Fallujah now a safe haven for Sunnis fleeing Baghdad

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Some 30 Sunni refugees seeking a safe haven from Baghdad sit under the shade of a camouflage net on the outskirts of Fallujah, waiting at a makeshift U.S. facility for city IDs.
    A skinny young man with a red and white scarf wound around his head pulls a reporter aside and lifts his right pant leg, exposing a shin with marks where Shiite militiamen had bored into the bone with an electric drill — the current tool of choice for Baghdad torture specialists.
    Security is tight and snipers abound, but Fallujah — once an extremely violent Sunni insurgent bastion where the charred bodies of four Blackwater security men were hung on a bridge — has become a refuge from the death squads and mortar battles in Baghdad. U.S. Marines say about 150 Iraqis flee here each week from the capital, 40 miles to the east.
    Unlike Baghdad, which houses large numbers of both Muslim sects, Fallujah’s population is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. As a result, Fallujah has not experienced the raging sectarian warfare that has the capital teetering on the brink of civil war. The migration is part of a larger exodus out of Baghdad, where entire neighborhoods have been uprooted.
    Population figures in Iraq are little more than estimates, but Fallujah was said to have about 450,000 residents before U.S. forces stormed the city in November 2004 to drive out the insurgents. As the assault gained force nearly 400,000 of that number had fled, but the Americans say there are about 300,000 living in the city now.
    Two years after the U.S. attack on Fallujah, Marine Col. Lawrence Nicholson takes rightful pride in what he and his men have done since taking over.
    Nicholson strides the stony ground here in snappy camouflage fatigues, his dog tag secured under the laces of his left boot. He doesn’t slip into his flak jacket but instead assaults the bulletproof vest, wrestles it on, then walks off with the slightly bowlegged gait of a man just off a horse.
    ‘‘This is the club. Welcome to our country club, our gated community,’’ the 51-year-old Toronto native said with a grin during a tour of the city Wednesday.
    But if Fallujah were a hospital patient, it would still be in intensive care. Two city council members and the council president have been assassinated since February. At least 30 police officers were gunned down this summer. The mayor fled in July.
    Reconstruction of the city, ruined in the Marine assault, is in progress but far from complete.
    There’s no bustle on the main street, and not much to bustle to. Unemployment is well above 50 percent. The cement factories are only now struggling back to life.
    A reporter who tried to step outdoors during a city council meeting — part of the tour — was grabbed by the arm and pulled back inside by Marines who warned of snipers right in the center of the city.
    Nicholson and his 5,000 Marines of Regimental Combat Team 5 have Fallujah sealed — the incoming roads at least — with what they call ECPs, or entry control points, manned by Americans, Iraqi army soldiers and Iraqi police. As a result, a long line of cars stretches at Fallujah’s eastern reaches. The Americans said they have reduced the wait to drive into the city to about 40 minutes since the ECPs were put in place several months ago. It looked like a much longer wait.
    In order to get in, everyone must carry a U.S.-issued ID card proving he or she is a resident and registered to live in the city. Weapons are banned in Fallujah, by law if not in fact.
    At one point, Nicholson strode in to begin directing traffic himself, then pulled a local Iraqi policeman — a Sunni Muslim — together with an Iraqi soldier — a Shiite — and asked them if there were any problems between them. The men, from the rival sects whose religious-based conflict is tearing apart central Iraq, assured the colonel all was well.
    Nicholson smiled and shook his head in a ‘‘Didn’t I tell you so?’’ gesture.
    He was seriously wounded the same day he took control of RCT 5 shortly before the Marine assault in November 2004. He missed the Fallujah operation but has returned and surrounded himself with an impressive team of junior officers to whip the place into shape.
    His command comes across like a squad of corporate turnaround specialists sent to a troubled regional hub of some Fortune 500 company. They are smart, well-groomed rising stars of the Marine Corps — specialists in Sunni tribal affairs, linguists, organizational experts.
    Nicholson — wiry and ruddy-faced with the look of a street brawler — keeps a tight rein on Fallujah and its townspeople. He understands their deep ambivalence about the U.S. forces that keep the peace.
    ‘‘The average person here would tell us to ’Get the hell out of my city — but not just yet,’ ‘‘ the colonel said.
    So while he’s here, Nicholson is a nonstop dynamo — here, there, everywhere, or so he would have the Fallujans believe.
    His men call him the mayor of the town. The real mayor is Jassim al-Bedawi, who took over from a predecessor who fled to Jordan this summer under threat of death.
    Al-Bedawi, a lawyer, looks like a bit like Burt Reynolds in his younger days — the same white-toothed grin under a he-man mustache. He took Nicholson to task at the latest city council meeting for closing a bridge over the Euphrates River.
    They call it the new bridge here. The old bridge, built in 1937, is now called the Blackwater Bridge. It’s where insurgents hung the bodies of the four security men who were killed in the city in March 2004.
    Al-Bedawi complained that the heavy security and closed new bridge were jamming traffic, blocking deliveries of necessary goods such as canisters of cooking gas.
    Nicholson stood as if at attention in front of his chair along the wall of the City Council chamber, listening but shaking his head side to side. He said he would check but countered that there had been too many attacks on the Iraqi army at the new bridge.
    He didn’t say no, but he didn’t offer much hope.
    Only 12 of 20 council members showed up this week, obviously not keen to journey through town to a meeting that so closely associates them with the Americans.
    The colonel calls the council ‘‘our dysfunctional family, but our family nevertheless.’’
    ‘‘We preach Team Fallujah constantly ... that we’re all in this together,’’ the 26-year Marine veteran said. ‘‘But in the end we have to tell them it is their choice, what they want it to look like when we’re gone.’’
    Through the daylong tour a reporter observed, Nicholson shook as many Iraqi hands as he could, and introduced his visitors to both town dignitaries and men in the street — clearly unafraid of what the locals would say about his work.
    And in short goodbye remarks, Nicholson smiled and said, ‘‘I hope you got a sense of what the average Omar is thinking.’’
    Then he spun on his heel and barked out some orders.

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