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Iraq From an Armored BMW: Where U.S. 'Reconstruction' Funds Are Really Going

Fallujah remains devastated, even as the U.S. military delivers shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills to the sheiks in charge.
 
 
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Fallujah, Iraq -- Driving through Fallujah, once the most rebellious Sunni city in this country, I saw little evidence of any kind of reconstruction underway. At least 70% of that city's structures were destroyed during massive U.S. military assaults in April, and again in November 2004, and more than four years later, in the "new Iraq," the city continues to languish.

The shells of buildings pulverized by U.S. bombs, artillery, or mortar fire back then still line Fallujah's main street, or rather, what's left of it. As one of the few visible signs of reconstruction in the city, that street -- largely destroyed during the November 2004 siege -- is slowly being torn up in order to be repaved.

Unemployment is rampant here, the infrastructure remains largely in ruins, and tens of thousands of residents who fled in 2004 are still refugees. How could it be otherwise, given the amount of effort that went into its destruction and not, subsequently, into rebuilding it? It's a place where a resident must still carry around a U.S.-issued personal biometric ID card, which must also be shown any time you enter or exit the city if you are local. Such a card can only be obtained after U.S. military personnel have scanned your retinas and taken your fingerprints.

The trauma from the 2004 attacks remains visible everywhere. Given the countless still-bullet-pocked walls of restaurants, stores, and homes, it is impossible to view the city from any vantage point, or look in any direction, without observing signs of those sieges.

Everything in Fallujah, and everyone there, has been touched to the core by the experience, but not everyone is experiencing the aftermath of the city's devastation in the same way. In fact, for much of my "tour" of Fallajah, I was inside a heavily armored, custom-built, $420,000 BMW with all the accessories needed in twenty-first century Iraq, including a liquor compartment and bulletproof windows.

One of the last times I had been driven through Fallujah -- in April 2004 -- I was with a small group of journalists and activists. We had made our way into the city, then under siege, on a rickety bus carrying humanitarian aid supplies. After watching in horror as U.S. F-16's dropped bombs inside Fallujah while we wound our way toward it through rural farmlands, we arrived to find its streets completely empty, save for mujahideen checkpoints.

To say that my newest mode of transportation was an upgrade that left me a bit disoriented would be (mildly put) an understatement. The BMW belonged to Sheik Aifan Sadun, head of the Awakening Council of Fallujah. Thanks to the Awakening movement that began forming in 2006 in al-Anbar Province, then the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency -- into which American occupation forces quickly poured significant amounts of money, arms, and other kinds of support -- violence across most of that province is now at an all-time low. This is strikingly evident in Fallujah, once known as the city of resistance, since the fiercest fighting of the American occupation years took place there.

Today, 34-year-old Sheik Aifan may be the richest man in town, thanks to his alliance of self-interest with the U.S. occupation forces. Aifan's good fortune was this: He was the right sheik in the right place at the right time when the Americans, desperate over their failures in Iraq, decided to throw their support behind the reconstitution of a tribal elite in the province where the Sunni insurgency raged with particular fierceness from 2004-2006.

In the "Construction Business"

Don't misunderstand. This wasn't a careful, strategically laid, made-in-the-USA plan. It was a seat-of-the-pants, spur-of-the-moment quick fix. After all, by the time U.S. planners decided to throw their weight behind the Awakening Movement, it was already something of a done deal.