Dec. 4—The main shopping road through town stretched long and straight, empty of any person or vehicle, the aluminum shutters of hundreds of shops twisted at a thousand angles, buildings ripped open, exposing demolished rooms and sagging roofs, telephone poles snapped and canted, the dangling lines curled and snarled like the webs of giant, crazed spiders. It looked like a savage tornado had roared through the downtown district, smashing all in its path, pausing capriciously to pulverize various buildings before moving relentlessly on.
At the end of the street, a trestle bridge over the Euphrates River stood etched against a vermillion winter sunset as though posing for a saccharine scene from The Bridges of Madison County. Last March, from those innocent-looking trestles had dangled the charred bodies of American contractors who had been murdered and dragged through the crowded, shop-lined street.
Over the next nine months, Fallujah, traditionally a rebellious city, metastasized into a Taliban-style fundamentalist tyranny, exporting suicide bombers bent on mass murder. Most of the beheadings featured on the Al Jazeera news network were committed in the city, carried out under klieg lights with written instructions how and when the CDs should be delivered to make the evening news. The city's warlords, Janabi and Hadid, paid obeisance to the arch terrorist Zarqawi and competed for his favor by assassinations and bombings. They bragged their "martyr battalions" would cut to pieces any American force entering the city.
Deciding otherwise, the residents fled the city, leaving a few thousand jihadists to their fate. In a swift offensive, American soldiers and Marines swept in and hunted them down, destroying every house and mosque where Zarqawi's soldiers stood and fought. Seventeen-thousand buildings were searched, uncovering cache after cache of weapons. The numbers were staggering: Over 100,000 explosives found in just one section of the city.
Bulldozers and backhoes are now shoveling the debris from the streets. The few remaining insurgents emerging from the ruins have been quickly cut down. The other day, four of them fired from a cluttered alley at two passing Humvees. Half a minute later, they were dead. A Marine battalion commander, Lt. Col. Pat Malay, shot the last of the four.
"It's a good day when you get into it," Cpl. Michael Yerena, the vehicle commander in the second Humvee, said to me. "You feel you've earned your pay."
I had visited Malay and his battalion—radio call sign Dark Horse—in the summer of 2003 when they were performing security and local government chores in another Iraqi city. Over the course of a year, the battalion had established municipal services in one city, engaged in full-scale urban combat in Fallujah and was now organizing to assist the returning civilians.
A relief center was being built in a park next to the souk where the main commodity had been weapons and explosives. In the grassy center of the park stood a merry-go-round with the English words UNITED STATES painted in red letters with blue stars on the center pole. The bodies of insurgents were still being removed, and the stench of death from a nearby torture house clung to our clothes.
"We're fixing the merry-go-round so the kids can ride while their parents are standing in line for relief payments," Malay said, not without irony. "Some of them are going to find their houses gone, along with the explosives in them."
Politically, Fallujah was as infected as the air at the torture house at the corner of the park. Many of the residents were complicit in the reign of terror. Whether the city returns to its murderous ways depends on the resolve of the Iraqi security forces now moving into the city. Voter turnout in January will be an indictor of how the political winds are blowing.
Militarily, the battle of Fallujah was an unqualified success. Zarqawi has been deprived of his sanctuary. He will spend more time on the run and have less time to blow up and decapitate people. His followers have been hit hard, many killed and others uprooted. Just today, an Egyptian, a Yemenite, and a Sudanese crawled out from the rubble and surrendered.
"We were surprised the irhabeen (terrorists) fell so quickly," said Hassan Lafta, a sergeant in the Iraqi army sent to Fallujah.
After lynching the Americans on the Euphrates bridge, the fundamentalists painted an Arabic verse on the right trestle. It read: Fallujah—Graveyard of the American Marine Corps.
On the left trestle, in thick black paint a Marine had scrawled a newer inscription. It read:
"This is for the Americans of Blackwater
murdered here in 2004.
Semper Fidelis, 3/5 Dark Horse"
Along the desolate street leading from the bridge to the merry-go-round and the torture house, a chill December wind whipped up clouds of dust, the only sign of movement.