Fallujah situation improving slowly

It has been 14 months since US forces fought insurgents in the city of Fallujah, but there is still slow progress on humanitarian issues, according to local officials.

Nearly 600 people died in the conflict, according to the government, but local doctors believe the number could be as high as 1,800 victims.

As much as 80 percent of the population fled Fallujah, 60 km west of Baghdad, when US forces launched an offensive to oust insurgents from the area.

More than two thirds have now returned and 15 percent remain displaced on the outskirts of the city. They are living in abandoned schools and government buildings, according to aid officials.

The entire population of the city was estimated to be 300,000 and today it stands at roughly 230,000.

“Approximately 65,000 people are still displaced out of Fallujah," said Bassel Mahmoud, director of Fallujah’s reconstruction project.

"The government has forgotten them because most are living with relatives in other cities or under deteriorating conditions in abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Fallujah,\”.

Despite Baghdad allocating US $100 million for the city’s reconstruction and US $180 million for housing compensation, very little can be seen visibly on the streets of Fallujah in terms of reconstruction. There are destroyed buildings on almost every street.

Enormous damage was caused by the two main conflicts in the city in April and October 2004 and according to experts repair work could take up to seven years.

Local authorities say about 60 percent of all houses in the city were totally destroyed or seriously damaged and less than 20 percent of them have been repaired so far. In addition, 6,000 shops, 43 mosques and nine government offices still require extensive repair work.

Power, water treatment and sewage systems are still not functioning properly and many districts of the city are without potable water.

“I depend on water tankers to have potable water for my children and we do not have power supplies for longer than five hours daily. They have to accelerate this reconstruction. When they decided to fight in Fallujah they did not think about our suffering,” Muhammad Rabia’a, a father of seven and resident of Fallujah, said.

Fallujah officials say 30 percent of the allocated funds have been switched to maintaining extra checkpoints and security patrols to ensure that insurgents don’t return – this has left a hole in the budget needed for reconstruction.

“It was originally estimated that we needed US $500 million in total for Fallujah- but instead we only received US $280 million and from this money only US $103 million has been spent on compensation so far,” Mahmoud added.

“The central government told us that they are going to release another US $75 million for compensation in April, but we have not heard anything yet,” Mahmoud maintained.

Of the 81 reconstruction projects slated for the city, only 24 have been completed and many others will be cancelled due to a lack of funding, the Fallujah official said.

In addition, the main hospital of Fallujah is working at half capacity and access to the building is difficult as it is under tight security with few doctors working inside, local people said.

Future projects include new health clinics and a medical centre, which were supposed to open in December 2005, but have now been postponed.